Students in the "Joining the Choir Invisible: On Death and Dying" course
Fuller and Wood
Most college students arrive on campus expecting to live a long, long life and planning to take courses focusing on the ways that humans live and think, knowing, as Socrates says, that "the unexamined life is not worth living." It might come as a surprise then that this spring 19 honors students at Catawba College chose to take a course entitled "Joining the Choir Invisible: On Death and Dying."
Team-taught by English professor Dr. Janice Fuller and psychology professor Dr. Erin Wood, this Honors course was designed to explore the biological, psychological, religious, and sociological phenomena at work when humans die and prepare to die. The course also explored postmortem realities, including how various societies treat human remains and memorialize the dead.
The course was structured around texts from a variety of disciplines, ranging from How We Die by neurosurgeon Sherwin Nuland, Final Gifts by hospice nurses Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley, and journalistic works on cadavers (Mary Roach's Stiff) and American ways of memorializing the dead (Kate Sweeney's American Afterlife). The class also analyzed films like Harold and Maude and Afterlife and the television series Six Feet Under as texts to help them examine and develop their attitudes toward death. Yet it may have been through experiential learning that the students most directly encountered dying and death.
Hospice volunteer and poet Michael Gaspeny spoke to the class about his closeness with patients faced with end-of-life decisions. Gaspeny's stories brought the reality of working with distinctive dying patients to life.
"Everyone is an individual until that person disappears from this earth," Gaspeny began. To make his point, he shared a few of his award winning poems about his hospice patients, including "Sherman's Groove," in which each Sunday Sherman drinks and smokes while he "schools" Gaspeny "On The Unsung Heroes of Jazz — all vinyl." His stories and poems also shone a light on the individuality of death. "People die as they live," Gaspeny declared.
Students visited UNC Chapel Hill's Exercise Science cadaver lab where they viewed two cadavers donated to the lab for the advancement of science. Despite the chilly room and chemical smell the students remained eager to have a hands-on experience with the cadavers. Kala Byrd of North Wilkesboro remembered, "At one point I was able to hold the brain of one of the cadavers," and reflected on the peculiarities of holding "someone's consciousness in [her] hands." The cadaver lab gave her an understanding of how simple yet complex the human body really is and what death takes away from the living person.
As a group, the students were fascinated to learn that the exercise science students made a point of remembering the names of each individual who had donated his or her body and that the UNC Medical School holds memorial services for the cadavers before cremating the bodies and returning the ashes to the families.
The visit to the cadaver lab prepared the students to read Marianne Boruch's "Cadaver, Speak," a 32-section poem written in the voice of a 99-year-old cadaver Boruch observed in Purdue University's Gross Anatomy lab. After reading the poem, the students presented the poem through a theatrical reading that was open to the public. During the staging, actors posed as medical students who mimed attending to other actors who posed as cadavers. Dressed all in black, the students from the course each read a favorite section or two from the poem to the audience.
The staging caused students to have vivid memories of the cadavers they had personally observed at the UNC lab and helped bring the poem's 99-year-old cadaver to life. Sara Sellers of Salisbury commented that Boruch "presents this cadaver as a person who has a past and who has memories. The beauty in this is that the 99-year-old lived a full life before death. Death is better than not ever existing."
On a chilly Saturday in March, the class took a field trip to local graveyards. The tour began with Chestnut Hill Cemetery, the Old English Cemetery, and Oak Grove Freedman's Cemetery — all managed by the City of Salisbury. These cemeteries gave the students insight into local traditions and values followed in honoring loved ones in distinctive ways. Unique headstones, keepsakes left at the graveside, creative epitaphs, and the blank expanse of the unmarked graves of freedman slaves left the students in awe.
Visiting local cemeteries gave the students insight into local traditions and values followed in honoring loved ones in distinctive ways. Photo: Julieanna Herriven
Next, Timothy Blume, the National Cemetery Grounds Foreman for the past 17 years, led students on a tour of Salisbury National Cemetery and the Salisbury National Cemetery Annex, walking them through the rows of soldiers' graves all exactly the same, rows he and his staff maintain with loving care.
In his journal, Michael Jones of Salisbury wrote, "I was rather shocked by how much I loved the Salisbury National Cemetery. I am a staunch believer in individuality when it comes to after-death plans. . . [yet] I admired the uniformity of all of the headstones. . . . These soldiers were a united force that fought for a common goal and that unity is still on display after death."
Blume, also a 9-year Marine and Gulf War Veteran, explained that, despite the apparent uniformity, soldiers have a range of choices in symbols for the grave stones and can decide between burial of the body, burial of a cremation urn, and the placing of cremains in the walls of columbariums.
After the cemetery tour, students couldn't help reflecting on their own family traditions for memorializing and noting how those traditions weren't necessarily embraced by all Americans. "I never realized that I was a part of a tradition until now," stated Shelby Wellman. She explained that her family members have always been buried in caskets and it wasn't until this experience that she realized not everyone chooses to do that.
For the final paper, students outlined the end-of-life plans that they might want to make, using Aging with Dignity's document Five Wishes in conjunction with their experiences in listening to Dan Carrigan's February presentation on end-of-life planning. Carrigan is the President of the Piedmont Carolinas chapter of Compassion & Choices and the founder and Chairman of the Board of Peaceful Self Deliverance America. The mission of these groups is to encourage dialog and education in order that individuals might be able to decide for themselves how and when they are going to die.
At the beginning of the class, many students expressed anxiety about the fact of death. Some admitted being unable to conceive of really dying — an idea that Jo Ann Beard expresses in her essay "Undertaker Please Drive Slow": "It is impossible to imagine not existing because in order to imagine you must exist." And yet imagine and plan and enact death the Honors students did. Perhaps, after all, the unexamined death is not worth,. . .well, dying.