Education: Thanatology 1

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At the University of Cincinnati, students have been visiting funeral homes and cemeteries and even the Hamilton County morgue. In Minneapolis, they have gone so far as to try out a coffin for size and to make detailed plans for their own funerals. Such activities may sound like something out of a Vincent Price movie, but they are part of a growing student interest in the subject of death. "To them," says Minneapolis English Teacher Robert Wolk, "death is not morbid but exciting, dynamic." As a result, young people have been taking newly organized courses in "thanatology" in some 70 colleges and schools across the country.

Thanatology extends far beyond the local graveyard. At the University of Maryland, for example, students start by learning the ideas of ancient Jews. Greeks and Romans about death, then move into the Christian era. Texts include books of psychology such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying and Herman Feifel's The Meaning of Death, supplemented with lectures by doctors and clergymen. Elsewhere, students even hear tape-recorded interviews with people who are dying. Says University of Minnesota Sociologist Robert Fulton: "The point is to bring a new perspective to death; to show that it is natural and to counter some of the euphemistic devices our society uses to hide death and dying."

Fulton finds that his course, "The Sociology of Death," draws many English, history and philosophy majors eager to experience what he calls "the natural round of life." Because so many deaths in the U.S. now occur in hospitals or nursing homes, young people have no opportunity to experience it firsthand. "The only deaths they are exposed to are in TV dramas, or those in Viet Nam or Bangladesh—never those of average Americans," says Fulton. Another reason for student interest, according to University of Maryland Health Education Professor Daniel Leviton, "is the chance to ventilate their fears about death."

Such a reason drew Catherine Medal, 23, a senior majoring in education, to Fulton's course at Minnesota. "I was afraid of death and didn't like to think about it," she says. "But in taking the course I got to the point where I could look at death as a natural function of life." She was so moved by the experience that she organized a high school course on death. Other students have more personal reasons for studying thanatology. One woman, for example, took the course at Wayne State University in Detroit in the hope that it would help her talk to her stricken husband about his own impending death.

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