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Death 101

death "Death is coming out of the closet," says Dr. Illene Cupit in a Wall Street Journal piece by Erika Hayasaki (3/8/14). Dr. Cupit actually has been outing death since 1984, when she first "proposed a class on death, dying and loss" at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. The department chair thought no one would "take a class like that," but he was dead wrong: "The class filled immediately." A similar class at Kean University "has sometimes carried a three-year waiting list."

The Kean class, taught by Dr. Norma Bowe, involves student field trips to "a coroner’s office … a cemetery, a maximum-security prison (to meet murderers) a hospice, a crematory and a funeral home, where they pick out caskets for themselves … Students are required to write goodbye letters to dead loved ones and to compose their own eulogies and wills." The concept is not limited to college campuses: cafes and pubs where people go to eat, drink and talk about death "have sprouted up in more than 100 cities." Ask a Mortician is now a popular YouTube series.

The goal of the college courses is to "learn an important skill: the ability to talk frankly about death" and provide "a carefully guided opportunity for the kind of reflection that many people do only in old age or after receiving a terminal diagnosis." Currently, there are "thousands of such classes" offered. Dr. Bowe’s course is not for the weak-of-stomach, however; the coroner’s office visit features cadavers and autopsies, sometimes of murder, suicides or drowning. "The burgeoning academic field meanwhile also has its own journal, Death Studies.”