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January 19, 2014

'Death Class' is surprisingly uplifting

“The Death Class: A True Story About Life,” by Erika Hayasaki

Tragedies always make you think about your own mortality. Someday, yes, you’re going to die. But as you’ll see in “The Death Class: A True Story About Life” by Erika Hayasaki, you need to learn to live first.

As a journalist for several larger newspapers, Hayasaki had seen plenty of death. She was at Virginia Tech after the shootings; had been on New York City ’s streets; had seen corpses, interviewed survivors. She’d even been close friends with a victim of domestic violence. And it began to bother her – a lot.

"I had become a journalist to try to explain … the world and its stories," she says. "But death’s mercilessness and meaning, I could not figure out."

So when she heard about a college course taught by a popular, much-loved teacher in New Jersey, Hayasaki begged to be allowed to sit in on the class. Dr. Norma Bowe agreed, but Hayasaki couldn’t be just a journalist in the back row. She had to participate.

So Hayasaki spent a semester following The Death Class to morgues, autopsies and a funeral home where the “sacred” happened. She took “field trips” to prisons, visited hospices, examined her own mortality and as the one-semester project turned into a several-years-long friendship, Hayasaki got to know Bowe and her students.

She learned that Bowe, who is a consummate caregiver, wasn’t just a teacher. Formerly a nurse, she was a mentor, advice-dispenser, calm presence and advocate, seemingly always on the lookout for opportunities to make a difference. Bowe taught in prisons, redecorated hospices, supported a homeless girls’ shelter and helped found an organization that fosters change. She taught that life is good, especially if you can make it better for someone else.

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