I remember when death used to happen to us all. No one could choose how or when or whether to die. Every single human being’s life used to end. This also meant that every person had someone they knew die before them. Death was inescapable.
A hundred years ago, before we understood how to cure death, we Americans did not know how to deal with it. So we tried to face death and accept it in feeble and contradictory attempts.
Death was so normal that at the end of the year they announced the names of all the famous celebrities who had died that year. This annual ritual in a way signaled our acceptance that everyone dies, celebrities and commoners alike. But we were shoving death away to other people, strangers who seem nothing like us. We did the same in movies. Movies portrayed death constantly, but of course those deaths were fake.
Death was so normal that at the end of the year they announced the names of all the famous celebrities who had died that year.
So we entered school not knowing what death was. But our ignorance never cleared. Our teachers never really did explain death or how to handle it. Even when they did mention death—-They only mentioned death after it had struck. Way too late to handle with strength and care—-teachers did not know what to say or do. Too afraid to hurt the students who grieved, they said nothing of the darkness they knew not. Or too eager to comfort, they mumbled something about “knowing your pain,” about “at least” this or that.
I remember a particular attempt by a school to teach students the reality of death: the infamous Brodhead High School Experiment. In the year 2016, a high school in rural Wisconsin announced that some students had died in car accidents. But the announcements were fake. Of course, the students who had been experimented on and their parents were upset, even outraged. The school justified it, saying,“Death happens all the time.” Certainly a crude attempt at death education.
Now, I’m sure you are saying to yourself that surely such ignorant techniques as cruel experiments and awkward consolations ended in college. But the ill-informed dealings with death continued. College students were, of course, more familiar with death than when they were children and teenagers. Nonetheless, really tackling death head-on often did not happen. Sure, death came up in literature, science, history, political science but only as a dramatic plot element, only as the experience of a character, only as cries of a far-off land or long-lost time. College classes taught us to see death as a thing of the Other. You could say we talked about death in roundabout ways because we were too afraid to encounter it directly.
I remember now when I faced the death of my brother during college. It was the beginning of my last year, and I could not concentrate. In shock and my energy left wasted, I was almost beat down by Shakespeare. The class was difficult by itself, but on top of that, the characters in Shakespeare who die or see others die could not make me care less about them. What of the lives and deaths of imaginary people was important, I thought.
When it came to death in college, you were together but alone. It was like taking an exam. You learn the material for the exam together as a class and sit down for the test as a class. But the actual exam is done by yourself. You are alone when you begin writing, you are alone when you submit the test, and you are alone when you wait for the results. Everyone has gone through the same ordeal, but you took your exam on your own. All of the others who took the same exam have a good idea of your experience, but they don’t truly understand because their experience with the exam is slightly different.
When it came to death in college, you were together but alone.
But now we know death to be nothing more than an illness to be cured. Now we are free to discuss death directly because it happens only if we choose it to happen. We understand that death is nothing more than the cessation of all vital body functions and all we need to do to stop death is keep body functions running. We have shed death from our lives.
King-McKenzie, Ethel. Death and Dying in the Curriculum of Public Schools: Is there a place? Journal of Emerging Knowledge on Emerging Markets, vol. 3, issue 1, November 2011, pp. 511-21.
Moran, Gabriel. “Death Education: Does Anyone Need It?” Talking about Dying: memoirs and essays, CreateSpace, 2012, pp. 87-104. http://www.nyu.edu/classes/gmoran/DEATH%20EDUCATION.pdf. Accessed 26 Dec. 2016.
Nadworny, Elissa. “Grief In The Classroom: ‘Saying Nothing Says A Lot’” NPR.org, 13 Jan. 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/13/376720559/grieving-in-the-classroom. Accessed 26 Dec. 2016.
Wang, Amy B. “A school wanted to teach teens a lesson. So students were told their classmates died.” Washington Post.com, 1 Nov. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2016/11/01/a-school-wanted-to-teach-teens-about-safe-driving-so-students-were-told-their-classmates-died/?utm_term=.3f8698bc329d. Accessed 26 Dec. 2016.
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