The Death Class

A True Story About Life

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Why does a college course on death have a three-year waiting list?

When nurse Norma Bowe decided to teach a course on death at a college in New Jersey, she never expected it to be popular. But year after year students crowd into her classroom, and the reason is clear: Norma’s “death class” is really about how to make the most of what poet Mary Oliver famously called our “one wild and precious life.”

Under the guise of discussions about last wills and last breaths and visits to cemeteries and crematoriums, Norma teaches her students to find grace in one another. By following her over four years, award-winning journalist Erika Hayasaki shows how Norma steers four extraordinary students from their tormented families and neighborhoods toward happiness: she rescues one young woman from her suicidal mother, helps a young man manage his schizophrenic brother, and inspires another to leave his gang life behind. Through this unorthodox class on death, Norma helps kids who are barely hanging on to understand not only the value of their own lives, but also the secret of fulfillment: to throw yourself into helping others. Hayasaki’s expert reporting and literary prose bring Norma’s wisdom out of the classroom, transforming it into an inspiring lesson for all. In the end, Norma’s very own life—and how she lives it—is the lecture that sticks.
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  • Simon & Schuster | 
  • 288 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451642858 | 
  • January 2014
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Experience Dr. Norma Bowe's Death Class

Erika Hayasaki's The Death Class reveal the gripping true story of an extraordinary professor who teaches a popular course on death and plunges deep into the off-campus hours of her most vulnerable students to show them how to live. Author phot...

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Read an Excerpt

Death Class ONE The Professor
When it came to death, Norma Bowe had the fearlessness of a swift-water rescue team; when everyone else wanted to get away from the force of the current, she went charging straight into it instead. Not many threats in this world seemed to rattle her: not guns, murderers, or the criminally insane, and certainly not death. With cheeks that swelled when she smiled as if she’d stuck a Tootsie Pop beneath each one and a high-pitched reverberating laugh, she made you feel as though, if you could only hold on... see more

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Death Class includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with Dr. Norma Bowe, who teaches the class. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


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 yourse see more

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