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The Death Class: A True Story About Life Hardcover – January 14, 2014

4.2 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Year after year, Norma Bowe faces a waiting list of students wanting to get into her death class at a college in New Jersey. Beyond the probing about last wills and good-bye letters and class trips to mortuaries and cemeteries is the underlying truth that a good, long stare at death can trigger a deeper appreciation of life. Damaged herself by a tormented childhood, Bowe attracts others who are damaged and consciously and unconsciously looking for answers. Award-winning journalist Hayasaki spent four years following Bowe and her class and details the journey of a young woman’s vigil against her mother’s suicide attempts, a young man’s effort to save his schizophrenic brother, and a former gangbanger’s effort to leave behind his violent past. Along the way, she explores her own adolescent trauma when a close friend was killed. Following Erik Erikson’s teachings on the stages of life, the class works through assignments that require them to write a bucket list, a letter to their younger selves, and their own eulogies as they ponder life lessons and consider the reluctance to confront death. Hayasaki offers a completely engaging look at death and the meaning of life. --Vanessa Bush

Review

“Readers will come away struck by Bowe's compassion—and by the unexpectedly life-affirming messages of courage that spring from her students' harrowing experiences.” (Entertainment Weekly)

“[Hayasaki] skillfully weaves together difficult stories, finding unexpected connections….The book’s strength lies in the well-observed details of the lives portrayed, and in the recognition that the work Bowe and her students are doing is messy, necessary stuff. Hayasaki acknowledges this by bookending chapters with writing prompts from Bowe’s syllabus—‘Be a Ghost’—as if to encourage readers to consider the big questions on their own.” (New York Times Book Review)

“By chronicling the stories of Bowe and four of her students, Hayasaki imbues the austere topic of death with tangible narrative immediacy. It’s a book of powerful scenes.” (Boston Globe)

“At its heart, this book spotlights a bumpy but certain road to resurrection and imparts its wisdom as it traverses a drama-filled landscape, one pocked with suicides and cold-blooded murder, abuse and addiction. . . . The Death Class manages to glide gracefully and delicately through the parts — say, the autopsy table — where you're sure you'll retch, if you can even keep your eyes on the page. And for sticking with it, you're rewarded with poetic passages and assorted revelations you'll likely not forget. . . . Hayasaki, through Bowe, drums in the essential lessons of how by finding purpose beyond ourselves, we infuse our lives with meaning and lessen our fear of death." (Chicago Tribune)

“Year after year, Norma Bowe faces a waiting list of students wanting to get into her death class at a college in New Jersey. Beyond the probing about last wills and good-bye letters and class trips to mortuaries and cemeteries is the underlying truth that a good, long stare at death can trigger a deeper appreciation of life…Award-winning journalist Hayasaki spent four years following Bowe and her class and…offers a completely engaging look at death and the meaning of life.” (Booklist, starred review)

“Who would want to take a class on death? Everyone, it turns out. Norma Bowe, the most popular professor on campus and instructor of ‘Death in Perspective’ at Kean University is an unsung hero of our day. Erika Hayasaki takes us on an unforgettable journey with Bowe and the many people in her orbit touched by her wisdom and compassion. Erika’s book is the last lesson you’d ever need on life.” (Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss)

The Death Class is at once puncturing and redemptive, sharing humanity’s most painful, violent face while at the same time revealing a fierce optimism and stunning generosity. It is more than a glimpse of a remarkable educational experiment. It shares the story of an extraordinary teacher whose very life is the class while weaving together the lives of students who struggle with complex, tormenting problems and find grace in each other. Its stories have lodged in me and will not soon let me go.” (Erica Brown, author of Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death)

“This is a beautiful book about courage—the courage to turn and face your own life and death, and the courage to make a difference in the lives of others. The Death Class points to a way of living fully, gratefully, and meaningfully every day.” (Elizabeth Lesser, author of Broken Open and cofounder of the Omega Institute)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (January 14, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451642857
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451642858
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #525,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Nothing short of 5 stars. I am not a reader, but this book had me so intrigued I read the book in it's entirety in about 5 hours. As a previous student to Dr. Bowe, I already knew she was nothing short of amazing. Her compassion for others moves mountains. Along with Jonathan as a guest speaker in class. Erika Hayasaki describes Norma perfectly, from her sense of humor and quirkiness to her concern for others and passion for others. I felt as if I was present for the conversations.

If there was one thing I learned from Norma, as well as Jonathan, it was how to look at life differently & how to live. Norma saves peoples lives, & she does it out of the kindness of her heart which is hard to come by. She has inspired so many people throughout her life and there is no doubt in my mind that she will continue this way of life. Erika Hayasaki captures the true essence of the class in her narrative. I highly recommend this book to ANYONE, especially those who are having a hard time dealing with death or just want to be reminded about how precious life is. My life has been changed forever.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I took Death in Perspective and I am proud to say I was one of Dr. Norma Bowe's students this past fall. This book is an extraordinary representation of what it means to live; to REALLY live. It tells the tales of people's most intimate, and darkest parts of their lives, and within those tales, the readers are given feelings of hope, compassion & determination for their own lives.

I bought and read this book in one day, and will probably read it a few more times within the next few weeks. Not too many get the chance to experience this class, all it has to offer, and the chance to know Dr. Norma Bowe. It's a privilege and an honor, and she continues to inspire hundreds of people everyday, including myself. The way Erika Hayasaki put into words the beauty of this class is truly remarkable as well. This book is for all those who feel like giving up, and for all those who feel like death is the answer. Life is worth living. Choose it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This was one of the few books I've read in my lifetime that I couldn't put down.
This book inspired me, made me laugh, cry, and ultimately challenged me to reflect on my life.

It challenged me to be better, to turn negatives into positives and more than anything it showed me I'm not alone.

The fact that the author spent 4 years interviewing the characters in the book and spent so much on the little details really made you feel like you were there as she tells the stories.

I believe this book will be around for a long time. I bought a few copies for friends and family. It's that good!
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Heard the author interviewed on NPR and purchased this book to help me with the loss of my sister. For me the book was really a biography of a remarkable woman, Norma Bowe, and the many people she touches, and empowers, with her endless energy and passion. While it might be helpful for those who have horrific trauma in their lives and don't have any previous background, at all, in knowing how to heal from it, I didn't find anything unique or insightful in this book. I don't believe I've ever read a hardcover book where I haven't underlined anything, except this one. I kept reading thinking I would find some nugget of wisdom, but it never materialized. Really, really didn't like the author's use of narrative journalism. I found it got in the way of the stories and trivialized what would have typically moved me. I'm sorry to say I would not recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I’ve skipped a few important assignments and grading papers to read this book and it is defiantly worth the time to stop and smell the figurative roses. I’ve known Norma Bowe for many years now and she still amazes me with her endless energy, projects, and compassion.

The book is very well written, told though different character’s real life experiences, and woven together that illustrates only a small piece of the rich tapestry of a humble life dedicated to the care for others. Her past tragedies, experiences, and triumphs are uplifting and demonstrate the indomitable human spirit and resiliency. Norma has turned a life of tragedies into something greater and uses her past experiences to guide and inspire wayward people in the right direction. Norma’s dedication, work and compassion speaks volumes of her character and who she is as a person.

Having sat in her classes (The Bowe Trilogy), it is hard not to be influenced a tiny bit even with a callous heart. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.

In this case, a professor standing in the streets with her students; feeding the homeless, championing for the mentally ill, the voiceless and the invisible, whom society has forgotten.

On a personal note;

I’ve always fought the administration of my Alma mater during my undergraduate/graduate days. I am glad, I lost the one battle that lead me to a professor by the name of Norma Bowe.

Erika, thank you for all your hard work over the years and shedding some light on a professor that we all love and respected but never wanted to pry.
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