THE DEATH CLASS, Erika Hayasaki

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Each year, Kean University in Union, New Jersey, offers an exclusive course called Death in Perspective, designed “to develop an understanding of the nature and experiences of the stages of dying, death, and bereavement.” Led by Professor Norma Bowe, “The Death Class” is the most popular on campus. But what Dr. Bowe does in the classroom goes way beyond making students confront the mechanics of death. Attracting students whose lives are haunted by death, the real purpose of the death class, and the goal of Dr. Bowe, is quietly rescuing students from tragedy. From an Obsessive Compulsive young woman who has devoted her life to saving her drug-addicted mother, to a young man who watched his father kill his mother, to a former gang member who turns his entire life into a community service project, Norma Bowe’s students learn over time her most important lesson, one it took her years to learn and accept—that you can’t give to others if you have not first healed yourself.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1.     “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life.” Why do you think the author chose to use this Mary Oliver quotation to open The Death Class? What resonance does it have with the book’s themes?

2.     Caitlin, Jonathan, Israel, and indeed Dr. Bowe herself all spend much of their time and energy helping others in their community, and far beyond it. What influence does the Death in Perspective class have on their volunteer or community service efforts? Alternatively, what draws people already interested in these things to Death in Perspective?

3.     The popularity of Death in Perspective at Kean is one of the things that drew the author to Dr. Bowe in the first place. Having read the book, what do you think it is about the class that makes it so popular? Would it be as popular if someone other than Dr. Bowe taught it?

4.     If you were a student at Kean, do you think you would be likely to try and sign up for Death in Perspective, if you knew only a little about Dr. Bowe and her work? Why, or why not?

5.     In many ways, Dr. Bowe is a very atypical professor: her closeness with her students, her teaching methods, and the very nature of her class are very unlike most college professors. What do you think is more (or less) effective about her style of teaching? Do you think more professors should be like Dr. Bowe?

6.     Most, if not all, of Dr. Bowe’s students have traumatic and difficult pasts, and most are still dealing with those traumas. How do you think their traumatic events have affected their perspectives on death? What are some of the similarities between the way Dr. Bowe, Caitlin, Jonathan, and Israel think of death? What are some of the differences, and where do these differences come from?

7.     Caitlin, Jonathan, and Israel are all from hugely different backgrounds, dealing with very different issues. Whose story did you feel closest to as you read The Death Class? Why? If you had the opportunity to meet one of them, whom would you choose?

8.     On page 85, the author writes, “Adulthood, Norma believed, is about giving back and passing lessons on to the next generation, so that the virtues you work so hard to develop live on even after your death.” Do you agree or disagree with this sentiment? Why do you think this is so important to Dr. Bowe?

9.     Jonathan and Caitlin’s relationship goes through a number of phases as they get together, break up, get back together, and ultimately break up over the course of the book. What lessons do they learn? What was preventing them from working as a couple? How are the lessons of their relationship applicable to other relationships, romantic or not?

10. Much of The Death Class is structured around Erik Erikson’s stages of life (you can find a chart of these stages in the appendix). What do you make of Erikson’s theory? Do you agree or disagree with it? Why or why not? Why do you think it has such a crucial role for Dr. Bowe?

11. In Chapter 19, the author revisits the family of her friend Sangeeta, whose murder she recounts early on in the book. How does the story of Sangeeta’s family, and their recovery from her murder, reflect the lessons of Death in Perspective? How has the author’s encounter with Dr. Bowe changed her view on Sangeeta’s death?

12. In the last chapter of The Death Class, Dr. Bowe allows the author to join her on her birthday trip, which she traditionally spends alone. Why do you think Dr. Bowe finally allows someone to join her for her birthday? What significance does this have for Dr. Bowe, for the author, and for The Death Class as a story?

13. On page 170, the author quotes Erikson on teaching: “…man needs to teach…because facts are kept alive by being told, logic by being demonstrated, truth by being professed.” Do you agree with this perspective on facts and truth? How might this affect Dr. Bowe’s perspective on teaching? What truths does she keep alive by professing?

14. The Death Class does an excellent job balancing different perspectives on the concept of death—from the physical and medical to the social, psychological, and personal. Discuss what you learned about death from reading this book. Do you think differently about death and dying after reading The Death Class?

15. One of the virtues of Dr. Bowe’s class, and of The Death Class itself, is how it escapes being pessimistic and morbid. How do you think Dr. Bowe and her students, so focused on death, loss, and trauma, can end up being so positive and outwardly generous? Do you see a paradox in thinking so much about death and still being optimistic and focused on life? Does it take a particular kind of person to have this outlook, or is it just a certain kind of attitude?

Enhance your Book Club

1.     Many of the chapters in The Death Class end with a writing assignment. Choose one of the writing assignments that speaks to you and complete it before your group meets. Share your responses with the group and discuss your process: Why did you choose the assignment you did? What did you learn, or what surprised you, in the process of writing your response?

2.     Death in Perspective takes much of its shape as a class from field trips to would-be surprising or unusual places for any other class—such as graveyards, mortuaries and prisons. Plan a field trip for your group based on one of the field trips from The Death Class, or plan to have your discussion in the location of your field trip.

3.     One of the themes that emerges from The Death Class is the importance of giving back to your community, and how helping others can be a crucial component of understanding and valuing your own life. Research how you can best help your community and volunteer at a local women’s shelter, soup kitchen, or nursing home.