Death: The Universal Human Concern

Death & Dying course helps students appreciate life’s ultimate coworker

How the dead cope with death is still a mystery. What happens after life is the Big Blank. Religious believers might point to paradise or perdition or reincarnation or liberation. Atheists might play the oblivion card. Mystics might say the concept of death is a nonstarter, noting that life and death are one in the same. The point is nobody seems to know for sure what the dead do for a living.

Death defined, according to Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, is “the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism.” Death imagined is beyond the scope of words alone. Emotion has its own ideas about “biting the dust” or “buying the farm.” That’s where death education grabs a shovel and digs in, so to speak.

Academicians credit Herman Feifel, an American psychologist and death pioneer, with sparking a realistic approach to death studies with his 1959 book, The Meaning of Death. Feifel’s contribution skewered a perennial taboo on death exploration and installed the groundwork for thanantology, the scientific study of death. V. R. Pine, a noteworthy death-issues pundit, concluded that modern death education operates on two main fronts, applied and pure. Applied death education focuses on managing the well-being of the dying as well as the upheavals of bereavement. Dedicated hospice care is an ideal example. Pure (or theoretical) death education focuses on teaching people how death operates in their lives by investigating the phenomenon from cultural, emotional, statistical, legal, psychosocial, moral and practical standpoints. The DCTC General Education course, Death & Dying, is an excellent example.

Developed by Joe Eells and taught by Saundra Welter Bacon, both psychology instructors, the two-credit course introduces the concepts and issues surrounding death and dying. Powered by theoretical and multicultural perspectives, coursework examines ethical and moral questions raised by death, dying and bereavement throughout the human lifespan.

“Every week during the semester we have an experiential activity that relates to our understanding of death and dying,” Bacon said. “Students will be assigned the task of finding a children’s book about grief and loss, or we will have a guest speaker come in to talk about hospice care. For a final project, students give a presentation on death from the perspective of a different culture, including funeral practices and alternate views on dying.”

Death & Dying, aka PSYC 1450, in a pine nutshell

Prerequisites: None
Credits: 2

Fall Semester
Text (Required):
Death & Dying, Life & Living (Seventh Edition) by Charles A. Corr and Donna M. Corr

Course Goals

  1. Understand the evolution of death, dying and bereavement education from an historical perspective and identify the dimensions and goals of death education today.
  2. Identify issues encountered in death in America today, including changing death rates by gender, class and age, causes of death including categorization of death, and changing attitudes about death.
  3. Define coping with death and understand how individuals and communities can help, including an overview of long term, home health and hospice care.
  4. Define and distinguish bereavement, grief and the phases and processes of mourning and loss, including an overview of crises, rituals and practices.
  5. Understand the cultural similarities and differences in attitudes about death.
  6. An overview of the developmental perspectives, including encounters with death in childhood, adolescence, early, middle and older adulthood.
  7. Understand the legal, conceptual, and moral issues of death and dying, including advanced directives and organ and tissue donation.

Even if personalized death chooses to hide out on the fringes of ordinary daily life, anyone who watches network or cable news is confronted by persistent instances of death by natural or unnatural causes, the latter due to suicide, homicide, accident, misadventure or something undetermined. College students are no exception. They are aware of death and its implications, but are often happy to regard the event as just another life experience—one to be ignored for as long as possible.

“We cover topics such as death anxiety, living wills and dying with dignity,” Bacon said. “Students learn about the distinction between grief, which is the emotional pain from the loss of a loved one, and bereavement, which is the ongoing process of life changes. By enhancing their understanding of death, my students learn more about themselves and other people.”

A required course for the Child Life Assistant A.A.S. degree and designed to meet Minnesota Transfer Curriculum Goal 05, History and the Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Death & Dying course gives students insights into how to communicate more effectively in death-related situations while sharpening their perception of developmental differences in human interactions connected to death.

“The Death & Dying course was developed for our Child Life Assistant program to empower students to support children and families during tragedy,” said Dawn Braa, the CLA program’s instructor. “Unfortunately, sometimes with illness and disease comes death. Child life professionals assist children and families through their emotions and provide them with coping strategies. Having basic knowledge of death and dying through the lifespan will allow our students to gain perspective and awareness that will be useful in the profession.”

One outcome many college students report from their death education encounter is a greater capacity to comprehend their friends, family members, acquaintances and even complete strangers. Students also realize the importance of expressing forgiveness even as they gain a stronger awareness that life needs to be lived day by day. Owning the idea that death can arrive at any moment changes the way people see their lives. They stop coasting and start engaging. Just mailing it in is no longer a sensible option.

According to the World Population Clock, 7,123,653,544 people were alive on the planet Earth at 12:44 p.m. CST Nov. 11, 2013. At that same time, roughly 100 billion people had already lived and died. Setting aside ghosts and other interlopers (zombies not included), no one has returned from the hereafter to provide irrefutable evidence showing what happens when we die. Like life itself, death is a head scratcher.

Perhaps Socrates was on the right track when he said, “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.” Then again, maybe Woody Allen was more in the know when he declared, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Revelation 6:8, as it turns out, has another take: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” All of us have to make up our own minds about death—at least until our own death makes the final call. Death education is one way to shine a brighter light on life.

About the instructor

A psychology instructor in the General Education department at Dakota County Technical College, Saundra Welter Bacon brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her classroom. Bacon has a Psy.D from the University of St. Thomas and an M.S. in counseling and education from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She earned cum laude honors as a psychology major at the University of Utah. Along with counseling, advising and teaching students at the college level, Bacon has worked with children, adolescents and families in community, educational and clinical settings.

Besides her teaching duties at DCTC, Bacon is a psychologist in a private group practice. Her areas of expertise include depression and anxiety, psychology ethics, grief and loss, developmental and learning issues, consultation and supervision. Her interests include outdoor recreation, walking, running, yoga, reading, music, and spending time with her family and friends. She began teaching at DCTC in 2000.

 Banner photo: Monteverde Angel • Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno • Genoa, Italy • photo by Antonio Lazzoni
For more information about the DCTC General Education course, Death & Dying, contact: