‘Death Class’ puts emphasis on living fully

Erika Hayasaki wrote "The Death Class: A True Story About Life" after following professor Norma Bowe and her students.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As a reporter, Erika Hayasaki covered disasters and American tragedies, but it wasn’t until she took a college course on death that she began to understand the difference between the good and the bad way to end.

The class was called “Death in Perspective,” and Hayasaki sat in on it for a Los Angeles Times “Column One” story in September 2008. Taught by professor Norma Bowe, the course at New Jersey’s Kean University has a three-year waiting list.

Bowe is a former nurse with a “fondness for cemeteries and could spend hours … kicking back on a freshly mowed patch of grass next to the grave of a stranger,” writes Hayasaki in her new book, “The Death Class: A True Story About Life” (Simon & Schuster, $25.00). Although she may sound like a character from a Tim Burton film, Bowe is a woman with an abundance of enthusiasm for daily life. She is a teacher with a drive to change attitudes toward, well, expiration and being alive.


Hayasaki’s book follows Bowe and several of her students. One member of the class, Jonathan, now a motivational speaker, watched his father, struggling with schizophrenia, stab his mother to death. As the narrative unfolds, the reader learns that Jonathan’s father died in prison, and his brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia too, leading to more and more tragedy.

“When you’re a news reporter, a lot of times you cover the news and don’t really go back,” says Hayasaki, 35, sitting at a table at the Highland Cafe in Highland Park. “You’re done and on to the next story. But the people live this.”

After the 2008 Times piece was published, Hayasaki found herself returning to the class: listening to stories from students like Israel (a former gang banger who found an outlet to give back for all his mistakes) and Caitlin (a young woman whose mother attempted suicide with startling frequency), as well as Norma’s own tales of her traumatic childhood as “just an unwanted kid.” Hayasaki didn’t initially intend to write a book on Norma and her students, but over time she just kept following the story, which touched so many deep themes: mental illness, homelessness, gangs.

When the barista sets a latte down in front of Hayasaki, she notices a heart design in the foam; it’s so artfully rendered she hesitates to drink from it and destroy the image. The same regard for detail and imagery exists in her writing — a skill she credits to her years as a reporter. “I wanted to know what went through Jonathan’s mind in the moment when he saw his mother dead,” Hayasaki says. “For me it was about being in the moment, so I could reconstruct it. It was almost like I was trying to live it with them.”

Hayasaki, who is now a professor of literary journalism at UC Irvine, ended up following Bowe for four years, sitting in on the class and completing some of the assignments. Her interest in the topic was not superficial: When Hayasaki was in high school, her friend, Sangeeta, was murdered. A noir-like account of her 16-year-old friend’s slaying is relayed in the prologue of the book, setting up a thematic link between her years of reporting on tragedies with her personal ones.

Devastated by her friend’s death, Hayasaki attempted to find solace at the time by writing about the murder on the front page of her high school’s newspaper, including the kind of gory, precise details the local newspapers avoided. It was a moment that proved quintessential to her career as a journalist, but it wasn’t until she took Bowe’s class that she understood its real ramifications.

“I had become a journalist to try to explain and interpret the world and its stories,” Hayasaki writes in the beginning of the book. “But death’s mercilessness and meaning, I could not figure out, no matter how many stories I wrote.”

In the months before Hayasaki met Bowe, she covered the school shootings at Virginia Tech and the killing of three teenagers in a school yard. She even reported on the 2007 Minnesota bridge collapse that killed 13 people, knocking on the doors of the families who were waiting for their loved ones to come home — though Hayasaki knew they would never return.

In order to manage her career as an award-winning journalist and ask the tough questions, she needed to keep some of these tragedies at arm’s length, attempting to disconnect it from her own feelings about loss. But after Bowe’s class, Hayasaki found more than just a way to confront the tragedies she covers; she discovered that the difference between the bad and good death is whether a person hangs on in desperation at the final hour because they haven’t lived a life worth living — or if they can accept the conclusion with a sense of satisfaction.

“I definitely don’t want to die,” says Hayasaki, who recently became a mother. “I don’t think anybody is going to say that. Especially if you love life. As far as the good death, if it came down to that — I’ve had a really great life.”

The book is structured in a way that imitates the class’ transformative nature, with chapters aligned to German-born psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory — used in the class — that humans have an eight-stage life cycle. Successfully fulfilling these stages allows an individual to face death with courage and grace, knowing that you have used your time wisely. It’s a perspective that Hayasaki shares with her readers.

“[Death] doesn’t have to be horrible,” Hayasaki says. “It could be really beautiful.”

Lapin is a writer in Los Angeles.