An inside look at Quinnipiac’s ‘death class’

By on November 14, 2017

Photo contributed by Kathy Livingston
There are many courses Quinnipiac has to offer for its undergraduate students, but few compare to the Death, Grief and Bereavement class Professor Kathy Livingston teaches.

Revolving around the topic of death and loss, the sociology course aims to push students out of their comfort zones while informing them on the different stages of grief and dying through a triangular format, according to Livingston.

“We look at medical caregivers first, because death is a medical event in the United States. We look at the dying person and the experience of a person who has a limited amount of time left to live. Then we look at the experience of dying,” Livingston said. “Lastly we talk about the grief of survivors, the friends family and relatives of the dead person and what grieving is all about from a sociological view.”

The class also examines attitudes and values about death, cultural components of grief and the function of bereavement with particular attention to the social organization of “death work” and dying in bureaucratic settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes, as opposed to the non-bureaucratic structure of hospice care, according to the academic summary Self Service.

A 300-level course with a single prerequisite of Sociology 101, any student can take the class as an elective or as a requirement to their sociology major or minor. The class is offered all year, every year.

Livingston and her current students acredit the class to be entertaining and well worth the learning experience.

Along with the controversial topic of the course, Professor Livingston and her students make two trips throughout the semester to a hospice center in Branford and the Oak Grove Crematorium in West Haven. Students tour both places and speak to representatives that work with the various patients both living and dead.

The trip to the hospice center takes place at the very beginning of the semester to introduce students to hospital versus hospice care and the significant difference between a place where death is considered failure and a place where death is expected.

“I think students are always surprised to see how beautiful it is and how it doesn’t smell or look like a hospital,” Livingston said. “Even if you go there and have apprehension about going it all goes away once you get there because it’s just so beautiful. There’s flowers, artwork on the walls, carpeting, its very homelike.”

Contrasting almost entirely to the hospice center, the crematorium trip is where students become more apprehensive of the visuals and information they receive from the crematorium owner.

Senior sociology major, Jenna Pellegrino was among one of the students that attended the most recent trip to the crematorium. Originally tentative about the hands on aspect of the class, Pellegrino is grateful for the opportunity the class provided as the semester starts to come to a close.

“Honestly I️ was not expecting to see what I️ saw, and it made me really uncomfortable at first. But once I️ took a step back and saw it as a learning experience, I️ felt better about it,” Pellegrino said. “Cremation is something that we all know happens, but no one wants to acknowledge it or witness it. Though I️ probably wouldn’t want to go and see it again, I️ am thankful that I️ got to have the learning experience.”

Photo contributed by Kathy Livingston
Students are not always granted the opportunity to witness an actual cremation when they visit the crematorium. Although the director attempts to time the trip with a cremation, it does not always work out in their favor, according to Livingston.

On the most recent trip for students currently enrolled in the course, students did get to witness a cremation of a body and reacted surprisingly optimistic to the hidden aspect of death.

“One of the students asked if we could see a body and he said ‘Oh of course’ so he opens up the door and we see the incinerator and there’s just a body in there and temperatures can reach up to 1,600 degrees and he’s been in there for a couple of hours and he goes ‘Let’s just shrink this down’ and he takes this long, metal rod and hits the skull and the skull just, pile of dust,” Lewis described. “It’s always weird cause that’s a person and you don’t know that person, but that person’s dead.”

Senior health sciences major, Alyssa Wile saw the course as a crucial opportunity to learn about a topic society as a whole tends to avoid.

“As a society, we are so poorly equipped to face death, which is of course a sad and difficult event that every human will universally experience,” Wile said.

Students currently enrolled in the class have clearly developed an understanding of death and it’s many stages as it has caused students intending to take the class to express their genuine interest.

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