Death Class Breathing New Life Into Students and Television


Norma Bowe

By Christine Moukazis

In an effort to assess the bereavement and despair of her students, Norma Bowe stands before her Death in Perspective class and flagrantly inquires, “How many of you know someone who has died?”

The entire classroom becomes a sea of hands, as every single hand is raised.

“How many of you know someone who has died of a terminal illness?”

Fifty percent of the hands ascend high into the air, as if trying to physically reach their loved ones in the proverbial heavenly skies.

“How many of you know someone who has been murdered?”

Regrettably, three-quarters of the students raise their hands.

This exercise undoubtedly proves that grief is ubiquitous and death is imminent.

“Your generation… you guys have a lot of grief,” Bowe said. “There’s a lot of grief and our society just doesn’t talk about it. And so I wanted to create a space where people could literally face their own mortality to live a better life.”

Bowe’s Death in Perspective, ranked amongst the “12 Most Unique College Courses in America” by The Huffington Post, serves as a bereavement group for her students centralized through experiential learning. She forces her students to confront their anxieties about death or the anticipatory grief of losing someone they love. Field trips for the class include visits to a hospice, cemetery, crematory and even a live autopsy.

Amy Palma, a Kean alumna and former student of Bowe’s Death in Perspective course, recently experienced a tragedy when she lost her 21-year-old cousin in October. She credits Bowe’s class with helping her properly prepare for dealing with the impending grief she would experience.

“Although my family is still grieving, we will never forget him or what he did with his life and I truly thank Dr. Bowe for teaching me everything about death and mental illness because it definitely made this whole process a little smoother,” Palma said.

Her interactive and introspective teaching style caught the eye of the Los Angeles Times journalist Erika Hayasaki, the writer who would ultimately pen “The Death Class: A True Story About Life”—a multilayer, nonfiction work that chronicles Bowe’s Death in Perspective class.

However, Hayasaki isn’t the only one who believes Bowe’s story is worth telling.

Actress Jennifer Carpenter, of “Dexter” fame, is joining forces with producer Sara Colleton to adapt the book for an upcoming NBC series. Bowe, the basis for the dramatic series, will serve as a creative consultant on the show.

Bowe hopes that the pending series will lead by example, straying from current pop culture trends in Hollywood that are not conducive to accepting our inevitable fates.

“Television does not [portray] death very well,” Bowe said. “I was out in L.A. last spring break talking to a group of television producers that were not NBC and one of the first questions they asked me was if I talked to the dead. I had to leave. I was like are you kidding me? But that’s how we deal with death in this country—through mediums or vampires. ”

Although you may think society has a morbid fascination with death with shows like “Resurrection,” “The Walking Dead,” or “Long Island Medium” and movies like the Twilight franchise, these pop culture staples romanticize death, allowing these deceased characters to fundamentally become “undead” by personifying entities that are still roaming this earth. Although we feel as if we are embracing these dark themes, these sources of entertainment—or rather, escapism— are prohibiting us from actually accepting our own mortality.

“No, we’re not going to get resurrected; no, we’re not going to get turned into a vampire,” Bowe said. “We have to deal with [death] because it’s going to happen to all of us.”

Bowe came to grips with death early on in her life. She grew up in a tumultuous household, where violence was prevalent. As a child, she did not know if she was going to be alive from one day to the next, so she accepted death as her inexorable friend.

“When we face our own mortality… when we stare death in the face, we understand for the first time, sometimes, that life is precious and we have no business taking it for granted ever,” Bowe said.

The professor cannot escape semblances of death, even through Be the Change, a community service and activism group she spearheads at Kean, dedicated to serving the needs of the local, state, national and global community. The organization tackles issues of poverty and crime, which are two discernible causes of death. The group also takes part in disaster relief, frequents hospices and visits terminally ill children and their families at the Ronald McDonald House.

Although death is inevitable, Bowe emphasizes that we are the sole creators of our lives and we have to actively create our lives all the time. We can claim power over our situation.

“We have just one wild and precious life, right?”

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