Shortly after sustaining five broken ribs and a brain hemorrhage in a car crash, professor Norma Bowe asked her doctor an unusual question: Could she parachute into Haiti to help victims of the recent earthquake? When her doctor gently suggested that this was not a good idea, Bowe settled for initiating a fund-raising effort that raised $185,000 for impoverished Native Americans in South Dakota.
Bowe is the heroine of Erika Hayasaki’s “The Death Class: A True Story About Life,’’ and she’s perpetually saving someone. She dispenses aspirin, therapy, and granola bars to her students and anyone else in need, and she mobilizes volunteers to renovate shelters and hospice homes around New Jersey.
A former reporter at the Los Angeles Times, Hayasaki became interested in responses to death after covering the fatal mass shootings at Virginia Tech. Her reporting eventually led her to Bowe, a registered nurse who teaches an improbably popular course on death at Kean University in Union, N.J.
Bowe believes that frank discussions about death can underscore the value of life and help students lead more meaningful lives. Her students visit prisons, hospice centers, morgues, and cemeteries. They select a preferred style of cremation or burial, write their wills, and share personal stories about death. “We have no business taking our lives for granted,” she tells the class after one student leaves an autopsy room in tears.
Her class combines life coaching, self-help, and applied philanthropy with psychological theories and biological basics. Students learn eerie specifics such as the fact that body temperature drops by 1 degree per hour after death. The cooling begins shortly before death, when hands and feet begin to feel like “refrigerated poultry” as the circulatory system prioritizes major organs.
But the class doesn’t have a three-year waiting list because of the biology. Students are drawn by Bowe’s galvanic personality and the chance to ponder basic questions about what constitutes a good life and a good death. This is not the abstract contemplation of a typical college seminar; students end up confronting fears and traumas from their own lives.
Many of them come from working-class backgrounds. They are bartenders and exotic dancers, hot dog vendors, and bank tellers; several have considered suicide or witnessed the traumatic death of a family member.
Bowe’s engagement far exceeds the standard duties of a teacher. She alternately acts as grief counselor, parent figure, and volunteer outreach coordinator. When students call her sobbing, she’s always ready to talk.
Hayasaki is understandably smitten with Bowe, whose efforts to alleviate suffering and promote candid conversation about death are often extraordinary. By chronicling the stories of Bowe and four of her students, Hayasaki imbues the austere topic of death with tangible narrative immediacy.
It’s a book of powerful scenes, but they’re not always moving in a meaningful way. Hayasaki presents Bowe as an example of brave resistance to a cultural taboo around discussing death. In a sense this is true; Bowe explores a delicate subject of fundamental importance.
Yet Hayasaki’s reporting can feel monochromatic. She barely considers the problems that can arise from professors becoming so involved in the personal lives of students. It would have been interesting to consider the complexities and ambiguities in such unusual relationships, but instead she presents Bowe as a saint-like figure who can do no wrong.
There’s also a lurid lingering on the minutiae of disturbing scenes. She recounts episodes in which a father stabs the mother of his children with a steak knife, a young man learns his brother was decapitated by a train, and a mother attempts suicide by overdosing on pills. While the scenes are crucial to the stories of students in Bowe’s class, the level of detail she uses to recount them sometimes feels slightly sensational.
Hayasaki also chronicles the experience of a man learning that his wife was killed in the Virginia Tech shooting. While meaningful conversation about death is valuable, her parade of gory and grief-stricken scenes approaches macabre spectacle. Even in a culture without a taboo around discussing death, there would still be a reasonable limit to witnessing the grief of others.
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.