Death Classes Are Helping Students Through the Pandemic

SThe students rush to the Galante Funeral Home, Union, N.J. in order to get their caskets.

Jessica Polynice (23 years old) is a fan of the more expensive pillows in the showroom. She jokes that her taste is rich. Other people consider the price tags displayed at the showroom, which range from $995 up to almost $6,000 and the softness of pillows. Surrounded by open caskets, Amanda Davis, 20, says she’d rather be cremated into a firework. Beside her, Lauren Duffy, 24, flips through a brochure for artificial reef cremations and weighs whether she’d like to be eternally memorialized on the ocean floor.

These decisions are largely speculation and part of the next assignment, which is to plan funerals for the future. They’re among 60 students taking Kean University’s Death in Perspective course this semester, which is one of the many college classes on death and dying in the U.S. that have grown in popularity during the pandemic. And it’s become much more of a grief-support group, professor Norma Bowe says, which is why the field trip to the funeral home starts off lighthearted but ends in tears.

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In the last 30 minutes, grief that was well hidden in the funeral home basement pours out of the students in the sitting room upstairs as they share farewell letters they’ve written posthumously to people they’ve lost. “I still feel you at the house,” one student tells her stepfather, who died in 2019 in a suspected suicide. “You’re everywhere there and nowhere at all.” Other letters are addressed to a grandfather whose cancer was caught too late, a 4-year-old cousin killed by a car, a brother lost to drug abuse, an unborn child.

“People are coming to this class to lay down their grief,” says Bowe, who gives extra credit to anyone who cries. There’s now a four-year waiting list to enroll in her class. At DePaul University in Chicago, Craig Klugman says there’s been “more buzz” recently about his course on death than in any of the past seven years he’s taught it. And a rise in interest in Duke University’s death-and-dying course has been significant enough that professor Deborah Gold kept teaching it, even though she officially retired earlier that summer. After doubling the number of annual course offerings, Gold still can’t meet the demand.

‘These kids are scared’

Nationwide, students are clamoring to study death from all angles—philosophically, biologically, sociologically, and historically—at ages when most people see themselves as invincible. But it’s not morbid curiosity or grim fatalism at work. A study last year found that college students feel more grief than ever and are suffering multiple losses due to the pandemic. OMEGA–Journal of Death and Dying.

The most frequent reported loss is a feeling of normality. However, more than 10% of college students said that a close friend or family member had died from COVID-19. Nearly 26% of respondents said that someone had passed away for reasons other than COVID-19. Classes and other events that place death in focus are a way for youth to grieve, deal with dying fears, and face their mortality.

“These kids are scared,” Gold says. “They belong to the age group that believes they are immortal, and all of a sudden it’s not so true anymore.”

Death was viewed for decades as something that is taboo. Most people prefer to avoid it until it becomes inevitable. But young people in the U.S. today can’t escape the fact that from 2019 to 2020, the nation’s life expectancy saw its biggest one-year drop since World War II, mainly because of COVID-19. The virus has been ravaging older generations and is now more prevalent in younger individuals than ever. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while death among younger people is still low relative to those of their elders who were struck by COVID-19 in the past, the highest increase in cases has been recorded for people between the ages of 18 and 29.

“Seeing so many people my age dying,” Polynice says, “it scares the hell out of me.”

Add to the mix a gloomy forecast for the planet as climate change spawns lethal weather events, as well as iffy career prospects upon graduation, and it’s clear that COVID-19 isn’t the only anxiety crippling young Americans. “This generation of college students—they’re experiencing cumulative losses in a way that really is unprecedented in our lifetime,” says Erica H. Sirrine, the lead author of the grief study and the director of social work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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That’s changed the way many people deal with the inevitable. One survey found that people aged 18-34 are more likely to have a Will than those 35-54. Survey results showed that the younger generation is more likely to mention COVID-19 when planning for their death. The survey found that people older than 55 years are less likely have a will. However, the younger generation is 63% more likely have one. “For the first time in a generation, everyone is experiencing the possibility that death may touch their lives—not someday, but now,” says Ann Burns, president of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.

Some people seek answers in the most unlikely of places: College classrooms. Kiara Pauli was 21 when her 15 year-old brother died from a gunshot wound. “I felt like I was drowning in my anger and confusion,” she says. The increasing death rate from COVID-19 made her more afraid of dying. Pauli was surrounded by death for the first time, something she had not experienced before.

In September 2021, she took a death-and-dying class at DePaul—the first time she had forced herself to think about death for a prolonged period of time. Pauli’s perspective changed the first day, when she and about 30 other students watched a video of an elderly man dying, surrounded by loved ones. Klugman designed the course and said that he used the video to demonstrate what peaceful death looks like. Most students had never witnessed someone dying. “The first day is about normalizing death and recognizing that at least in the U.S., most people have some anxiety about it,” he says. The video showed Pauli that dying isn’t always terrifying or painful.

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One month later, Pauli’s grandfather died following a heart attack. College junior held on to the knowledge she had learned. The elderly man’s video helped her understand what would happen in the last moments of someone’s life. By the time the course was over in November, Pauli realized she was scared of dying because she didn’t want to be forgotten. To leave a legacy, she decided to be an author.

“We study dying to know how to live,” she says. “The class was like the near-death experience that makes people figure out priorities.”

The role death classes play in counseling is not possible

College death classes have been one of the best and most affordable ways for students to cope with grief over the last two years. While most U.S. universities offer counseling services to students at little or no additional cost, when campuses closed during the pandemic and learning went remote, tens of thousands of out-of-state students lost access to those services because of differing telehealth guidelines in their home states, says Dr. Ryan Patel, chair-elect of the American College Health Association’s mental-health section. An Ohio school counselor, or school psychiatrist, wouldn’t be able, for instance, to virtual counsel students who were in New York on a regular basis.

Many people who struggled had no other choices. According to Patel, a Ohio State University psychiatrist, they could also see a professional or therapist, but this could run $50-100 per session depending on their location. You can also call several national crisis lines for free. Patel says that these providers may not have the same training to help students with their unique financial, academic and social struggles as college counselors.

Even those who stayed in-state and maintained access to their college’s counseling services faced hurdles. Many lost the privacy they needed to talk about their mental health with their family, and others returned to unhealthy environments. Omicron’s fast-growing Omicron variant has made the situation even more difficult. Patel is worried that these problems will persist in the near future.

“A hybrid form of education in some form is here to stay,” he says. “So we’re left with trying to figure out how we are going to provide support services for students.”

Classes in college on dying and death aren’t new. Bowe, a registered nurse, has been teaching her course since 1997, and Gold’s class at Duke was first approved in 2001. Coltan Scrivner of the University of Chicago who studies morbid curiosity says that their popularity after a pandemic is understandable. Scrivner discovered that many people used horror movies as coping mechanisms during the 2020 pandemic. Study found that horror enthusiasts and those who are morbidly curious tend to be more psychologically resilient in times of change. “It feels good to control what will terrify you,” Scrivner says.

According to Shelly Kagan, a Yale University professor, some philosophy students might find it easier dealing with the death process by exploring the possibility of an afterlife or whether fear is rational. Some students are also looking for concrete scientific knowledge. Klugman noticed an increase in students asking questions about infectious diseases at DePaul. Klugman added a lecture on COVID-19 in 2020 that compares it to other pandemics, such as 1918 flu or mass deaths due to major natural disasters.

“What they want to know has changed,” Klugman says. Many of his students ask Klugman how to talk with someone who’s lost a beloved one, and more specifically how to talk to someone who is COVID-free without getting into political arguments.

Mental-health is a vital need for many.

Bowe witnessed a similar shift. Three years ago, she’d say her students were drawn to her class for the unique field trips, which got them out of school to watch live autopsies at morgues and roam cemeteries for scavenger hunts in the evenings. These trips have become minor perks and the class has been more of an essential part of mental health. “We carry grief like a backpack full of bricks,” Bowe says. “There’s nowhere to let it go.”

This was evident in the recent trip to the funeral home. Many of the students’ wounds were fresh, but several have never healed. Since Polynice was nearly a decade old, she has suffered silently. Her family avoids talking about her grandfather’s traumatic death, so she’s not used to acknowledging the pain she still feels. She laughed at jokes while shopping for caskets. But then, her tears welled up when she said that she was just 14 years old when her grandfather passed away in their home. Polynice adds that her grandfather had struck a tube in his arm while undergoing dialysis.

“This class makes you uncomfortable,” she says, “but I’m better because I’m able to talk more openly about it.”

Amanda Davis has experienced the same feeling of closure after her grandfather, who was 78 years old, died from the cancer spreading from his liver to the bones. “No one teaches you how to grieve,” says the sophomore from Sacramento, who is one of the first volunteers to share her farewell letter with the class. “Things remind me of you every day,” she reads out loud, turning bright red as her face mask absorbs the falling tears. But as soon as she’s done, Davis feels instant relief.

In the past two years, all 330 students who have taken Bowe’s death class have either lost a loved one to COVID-19, know somebody who has, came close to losing someone to the virus, or almost died from it themselves. The disease took two from Daniela Derius-Rodriguez, just as she was about to complete Bowe’s course. After being put on a ventilator, Derius-Rodriguez’s mother died on April 21, 2020, three weeks after the student’s grandfather had died. This was Derius-Rodriguez’s first experience of death. “I was grieving while learning about grieving,” she says.

Bowe said that she didn’t have to finish out the semester, that she had already gotten an A. It didn’t matter to Bowe if Derius-Rodriguez took the final exam, which consists only of reflective questions, because her main goal as a death-class professor is for every student to walk away with a deeper appreciation of life. Derius-Rodriguez continued to attend class, and she handed in all assignments until her May graduation. Her grandfather and mother had always put an emphasis on education and the importance of working through hardships, so Derius-Rodriguez didn’t want to take the easy way out. She had learned to trust her fellow classmates and to learn from them how to feel.

“I was in a room full of strangers, but I felt so connected to them,” she says. The class kept her from being closed up, and she made sure the rest of her family wasn’t bottling up their pain too. Without the class, she says, “I would have been in the dark.”

Sirrine, a grief-study author and someone who has taught death classes at Florida colleges for 14 years, said that death classes help people talk about their pain instead of holding it inside. These classes also encourage empathy in a period of difficult social interactions. “If we can move toward each other and extend more compassion to people who are suffering,” Sirrine says, “then maybe the pandemic won’t be all a loss.”

Two years ago, when Derius-Rodriguez perused caskets at the funeral home for the first time during one of Bowe’s field trips, she crossed her fingers and hoped she’d never have to organize a funeral for real. She was soon helping her family plan the second one a month later. The 23-year-old now understands that grief is inevitable because it’s a by-product of love. “When it does come to us,” she says, “we need to learn how to handle it.”

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