Talk about Kean University’s Death in Perspective course and its three-year waiting list has been making the rounds in news media. Taught by registered nurse Dr. Norma Bowe, the course recently inspired a book titled The Death Class: A True Story About Life.
Los Angeles Times journalist Erika Hayasaki, author of The Death Class, first met Bowe in 2008.
Kean University hosted an event on Jan. 23, where Bowe and Hayasaki discussed the course and shared how it brought them together.
Hayasaki had phoned Bowe, expressing interest in taking and writing an article on the course.
“I don’t know you,” Bowe recalled telling Hayasaki. “Send me something you wrote.”
Hayasaki sent her article on the Virginia Tech massacre, which had earned Hayasaki a spot as a finalist for the 2008 Livingston Award for Young Journalists, according to her Death Class website. Impressed with Hayasaki’s writing, Bowe welcomed her to the course.
Hayasaki’s Death in Perspective article, which eventually ended up on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, told of her and her classmates’ experiences in the course.
In their first assignment, the students had to write a goodbye letter to a loved one.
Once you’ve written the letter, Hayasaki told the event’s audience, you have to read it aloud to the whole class.
“It’s extra credit if you cry,” an audience member from the fourth row joked.
As Hayasaki revealed in her Los Angeles Times article, “Finding life’s meaning in death,” the nature the assignment is so heavy that students are prone to choke up and cry as they read their letters.
“How often do you sit down next to someone in class and you never know something about them?” Bowe asked the audience. “In this class, we get to know each other so well, and a lot of that is from the goodbye letter.”
Over the semester, the class also takes field trips to penitentiaries, hospices and cemeteries.
Trips to penitentiaries, said Bowe, show the death of freedom that happens in prison.
Prisoners may be living and breathing, Bowe continued, but with no freedom, they’re dead inside.
The hospice trip was a life-changing experience for a student named Jenna, who shared her experience with the event’s audience.
The trip allowed Jenna, who was originally uncomfortable with hospices and the elderly, to meet a spunky 95-year-old woman. Taken with the woman, Jenna visited her for two months and eventually became a hospice volunteer.
As far as favorite field trips go, the cemetery field trip is Bowe’s favorite.
“[The cemetery field trip] is about finding true love,” said Bowe. “And to do that, you have to read the epitaphs.”
Cynthia, a former student of Bowe’s, lost her mother two weeks before the start of her freshman year. Though her loss made her resistant to the goodbye letter, Cynthia went along on the field trip to the cemetery.
As it turned out, Cynthia told the audience, that cemetery was where her mother had been buried. Cynthia told Bowe, who replied, “Oh, good. You could write her a eulogy.”
The audience shared a laugh at Bowe’s lack of tact, and Bowe praised her students for being brave enough to take a course focusing on death.
At one point during the event, Bowe asked the audience for their opinion on her teaching style, inquiring if they’d prefer her to lecture from a book.
The audience replied with a resounding “no.”
Bowe, who’s been teaching the class for 14 years, took it over from a retiree and revamped the syllabus to have biology, philosophy and religion as the class’s main features.
“This is the only class in my tenure at Kean where the professor said the letter grade doesn’t matter,” said Melissa, a former Death in Perspective student. “What I took from the class superseded any grade I could’ve gotten on my transcript.”
Many other students got a chance that night to express their appreciation for Bowe and her course.
Lindsay Zaccardi, a former Death in Perspective student, was so grateful that she gave her idea of a perfect gift to Bowe: a heartfelt promise to always help people in need.
“I want to thank you, Dr. Bowe, for not only helping me to see the sun, but also feel the sunshine,” Zaccardi said after making the promise. “You’ve touched many hearts.”