Not every nineteen-year-old is ready to confront his own mortality. "My estimation is that the students who take this class are the most courageous students on campus," says Deborah Gold, an associate professor of medical sociology. "It is not an easy class to take because of the unavoidable emotional aspects of death or dying."
The course, which Gold offers every fall, draws a diverse group of undergraduates, including would-be doctors, people who hope to manage their fear of death, and students who have recently lost a friend, a family member, or a pet. Gold began teaching the course in the tumultuous fall of 2001. "Class started the last weekend of August, and in eleven days September 11 happened, so I had the material for the whole rest of the semester right there," she says.
"Death and Dying" is a LEAPS (Learning through Experience, Action, Partnership, and Service) class, so it combines readings and research papers with weekly community service. Volunteer assignments are tailored to each student's interests and comfort level with death, and range from retirement homes to the cancer wards at Duke Medical Center. "We try really hard to match the student to a level of readiness," Gold says. "If I have a person who's really afraid of dying, I'm not going to send them to a hospice."
Several years ago, one student witnessed eleven deaths in a single semester, working alongside a hospital chaplain at the medical center. She is now a third-year medical student at Case Western Reserve University and has told Gold that the experience prepared her emotionally for encountering death in medical school.
Cultural attitudes to death have changed with improved medicine, Gold says, and death has been isolated and quarantined in hospitals and nursing homes. "Back in the 1900s there was no correlation between age and death. You were as likely to die at five as you were to die at twenty or eighty.
"As our public-health situation has improved, we've pushed death later and later into life and made it much more distant from the everyday lives of individuals. It's amazing to me how few students have been to a funeral, how few have seen a dead body."
Yaolin Zhou '06 said taking "Death and Dying" helped her face a potentially life-threatening operation in the spring of her senior year. "I was so much more at peace with the possibility that I was going to die," says Zhou, now a first-year student at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. "I knew what I was going to write for my advance directive."
Deborah Gold earned a B.A. with majors in English and Latin from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1973, her M.Ed. from the National College of Education in 1979, and a Ph.D. in human development and social policy from Northwestern University in 1986. She is an associate professor of medical sociology at Duke Medical Center and director of the Human Development Program.
Weekly readings from journal articles, novels, and psychological and sociological texts
A preliminary paper on why students chose to take the class, a service-learning research proposal, reflections on community service, and a final research paper
Sociology 164 - Death and Dying
January 31, 2007