The Death Class

A True Story About Life

The Death Class

The poignant, “powerful” (The Boston Globe) look at how to appreciate life from an extraordinary professor who teaches about death: “Poetic passages and assorted revelations you’ll likely not forget” (Chicago Tribune).

Why does a college course on death have a three-year waiting list? When nurse Norma Bowe decided to teach a course on death at a college in New Jersey, she never expected it to be popular. But year after year students crowd into her classroom, and the reason is clear: Norma’s “death class” is really about how to make the most of what poet Mary Oliver famously called our “one wild and precious life.”

Under the guise of discussions about last wills and last breaths and visits to cemeteries and crematoriums, Norma teaches her students to find grace in one another. In The Death Class, award-winning journalist Erika Hayasaki followed Norma for more than four years, showing how she steers four extraordinary students from their tormented families and neighborhoods toward happiness: she rescues one young woman from her suicidal mother, helps a young man manage his schizophrenic brother, and inspires another to leave his gang life behind. Through this unorthodox class on death, Norma helps kids who are barely hanging on to understand not only the value of their own lives, but also the secret of fulfillment: to throw yourself into helping others.

Hayasaki’s expert reporting and literary prose bring Norma’s wisdom out of the classroom, transforming it into an inspiring lesson for all. In the end, Norma’s very own life—and how she lives it—is the lecture that sticks. “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).
  • Simon & Schuster | 
  • 288 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451642940 | 
  • December 2014
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Death Class includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with  Dr. Norma Bowe, who teaches the class. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Each year, Kean University in Union, New Jersey, offers an exclusive course called Death in Perspective, designed “to develop an understanding of the nature and experiences of the stages of dying, death, and bereavement.” Led by Professor Norma Bowe, “The Death Class” is the most popular on campus. But what Dr. Bowe does in the classroom goes way beyond making students confront the mechanics of death. Attracting students whose lives are haunted by death, the real purpose of the death class, and the goal of Dr. Bowe, is quietly rescuing students from tragedy. From an Obsessive Compulsive young woman who has devoted her life to saving her drug-addicted mother, to a young man who watched his father kill his mother, to a former gang member who turns his entire life into a community service project, Norma Bowe’s students learn over time her most important lesson, one it took her years to learn and accept—that you can’t give to others if you have not fir see more

About the Author

Erika Hayasaki
Photograph by Pat Bright

Erika Hayasaki

Erika Hayasaki spent nine years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times before becoming an assistant professor in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. She is a recipient of the Los Angeles Times Best Writing Award, the Association of Sunday Feature Editors Award, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors Breaking News Award.