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The Death Class: A True Story About Life by Erika Hayasaki: A Book Review

Posted on 9 December, 2014 at 19:00

In The Death Class: A True Story About Life, Erika Hayasaki tells her experience of shadowing Norma Bowe, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey. What is unique about Bowe is the subject matter of her most popular course: Death in Perspective, affectionately called the "death class" by students. According the Hayasaki, the class has a three year waiting list and is one of the most popular courses on campus. Hayasaki reveals that Bowe allowed her to follow her for four years, including auditing the class, with the stipulation that Hayasaki "participate in the class as a student."


Hayasaki describes Bowe as a figure larger than life: a teacher, counselor, nurse, shoulder to cry on, activist, rescuer, mother, partner, and more. Bowe is there for her students whenever they need her, and they often call at all hours, desperate for help. Her dedication is present not only in the classroom, but also in the real world. Bowe helps many students with their crises, and Hayasaki chronicles eight of them, giving the reader greater insight into each struggle, something that would not have been possible had she included the stories of the dozens of students she interviewed.


We meet Caitlin, whose mother frequently attempts suicide, and who continually allows herself to be thrown into the role of rescuer. She battles her family issues while doing her best to finish her college degree. Her boyfriend Jonathan's story includes a horrific childhood event, sadly repeated in his adult life. Israel longs for a fresh start after a long history of gang membership. Jerzy grieves his wife, who was murdered in a tragic shooting. We meet others, too, dealing with equally difficult circumstances, and Hayasaki leads us through their stories, sometimes interweaving them, sometimes letting them stand alone. The common thread, however, is Norma Bowe and her "death class." Through this class, Bowe gives each student the chance to process his or her losses and life events, taking the group on field trips to cemeteries and autopsies, and assigning projects that, ironically, get to the heart of what it means to really live.


The Death Class is a book that seeks to explain both the biological process of death, and what happens to those left behind. It is touching and raw, but with an overarching theme of hope. The reader senses that somehow things will be okay, although perhaps different than before, while following each student's process of change over the course of the book. The lives of those included are not perfect, and Hayasaki does not pretend they are or will be in the end, but she tells the story in a way that is uplifting and inspiring.


Erika Hayasaki is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and is an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Norma Bowe is a professor at Kean University in New Jersey and founder of the nonprofit Be the Change.

Categories: Grief and Loss, Book Reviews

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