How an LA Times Reporter Learned to Face Death to Understand Life

HayasakiErika_Credit Pat Bright

In the 2010 HBO documentary about his life, Dr. Jack Kevorkian espoused what he had learned after years of helping disease-addled patients end their own lives: Once you accept death as part of life, you will no longer fear it. Forget the rituals, the Christian ideas of afterlife. Death was the final chapter. The chemical reactions that kept your heart beating all this time ceased. In place of your consciousness, sweet, serene nothingness. Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote often about his atheism and humanism, praised his rationale — the Cat’s Cradle author even wrote a radio play entitled, ironically, “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian.” He shared Kevorkian’s view that understanding and accepting death could help you forge a more moral life.

In her debut book The Death Class: A Story About Life, journalist Erika Hayasaki seems to present this theory through a case study.

The Simon & Schuster imprinted book, christened with a Manhattan launch party on Monday night, chronicles a class at New Jersey’s Kean University called Death in Perspective. Led by Professor Norma Bowe, the class aims to “develop an understanding of the nature and experiences of the stages of dying, death and bereavement.”

There’s a three-year waiting list to get in.

“When it came to death, Norma Bowe had the fearlessness of a swift-water rescue team; when everyone else wanted to get away from the force of the current, she went charging straight into it instead,” Hayasaki writes on page 5. “There was an air of invincibility surrounding her, a feeling so magnetic that long after class had been dismissed students found themselves wanting to hang out with ‘Dr. Bowe’ which is what they called her, despite her insistence that they call her Norma … she knew there was an art to surviving. That is what she wanted her students to learn.”

The long-time Los Angeles Times reporter, now the L.A.-based editor of the long-form storytelling outfit Narratively, said she reported on the class for a page-one Times story, and found herself so intrigued she kept returning to Kean.

“I found that a student had written about the class and I thought it would be interesting, given that I had been covering so much death in my job,” Hayasaki told FishbowlNY in an interview on Tuesday.

She started her journalism career by covering the murder of a childhood friend. During her nine years at the Times, starting when she was 21 and moved out to L.A., she covered tragedies including the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre. Bowe’s class ultimately helped her confront the loss her of friend.

“I kept going back for the next three years and getting more out of it. I also took the class myself.”

Now, the first-time author is readying herself for a media blitz to promote The Death Class. She told us she will appear on MSNBC tomorrow morning, and on NPR’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” this week.

[Image courtesy: Pat Bright/Simon & Schuster]