By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER, Rafu Staff Writer
At The Rafu Shimpo, it’s impossible to avoid thoughts of death. Obituaries and mortuary ads run in our pages almost daily, our columnists write often about aging and loss (see Wimpy Hiroto’s eloquent “Crossroads to Somewhere” from Feb. 12), and even when we don’t mention it by name, death tends to plays the role of elephant in the room, giving stories about honorary degrees and centennial birthdays their sense of urgency and bittersweetness.
Most people don’t enjoy thinking about death despite the fact that it surrounds us. But journalist Erika Hayasaki has dedicated herself to exactly that task. A former L.A. Times reporter, she’s put out two books on death in just two years: first “Dead or Alive,” an exploration of “near-death experiences,” and now “The Death Class: A True Story About Life” (2014, Simon and Schuster).
“The Death Class” introduces Norma Bowe, a professor at Keane University in New Jersey and a former nurse, who teaches a popular course about death and dying. When Hayasaki approaches her to write about the class, Norma (as she asks her students to call her) gives one caveat: Hayasaki must participate in it as a student.
The result of Hayasaki’s semester — plus the three and a half years after, during which she continues to follow Norma throughout her teaching and personal life — is a book that sprinkles facts about death from biological and psychological perspectives onto a more personal story about Norma and four students whom she helps through dark circumstances.
Hayasaki’s role as student and classmate as well as journalist softens the barrier between writer and subjects. Between the chapters of the book, she gives actual essay prompts from Norma’s class, including “Write a goodbye letter to someone you have lost,” and “Write your own eulogy.” Sometimes the prompts are followed by students’ responses; sometimes Hayasaki shows us her own. All the prompts — in combination with field trips to cemeteries, mortuaries, and hospices — paint a picture of a fascinating, valuable class.
It may seem strange to look for insight about death from a middle-aged teacher, a young journalist, and even younger students. While some of Norma’s students take the class out of simple curiosity, most come to it because they’ve seen death close up: through suicidal depression, the loss of parents, gang violence, war. The class’s three-year waiting list shows just how hungry students are, despite their relative youth, for a chance to process the fact of life’s inevitable end.
The students Hayasaki chooses to highlight have had especially difficult lives. One of the main narrative threads focuses on Norma’s student Caitlin, her boyfriend Jonathan, and Jon’s brother Josh. Their story includes mental illness, addiction, a murder, and a suicide while somehow hitting an optimistic chord. Hayasaki weaves this plotline with several others, switching focus with each chapter to give “The Death Class” the addictive forward momentum of a novel. Each thread grips and moves, but taken together they don’t quite transcend their specifics. Rather than a universal exploration of death, “The Death Class” feels very much like the story of one particular class in one particular time: exciting, inspiring, but not “the answer” to a search for meaning.
But life and death, to put it tritely, are a lifelong process, and so must be the quest to make sense of it through story. Hayasaki has tried to do it with two books: I hope her written exploration continues.