Tips for Teaching a Death and Dying Class in Your Community

04/15/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

If you are searching for a way to improve end-of-life awareness and make a lasting impact on society you might consider teaching a class on death and dying at your local community college. The future of end-of-life care in our country ultimately depends on changing our culturally ingrained denial of death, and educating our young adults about the end-of-life is a necessary step toward bringing about that change.

For the past three years I've been a guest speaker at the "Psychology of Death and Dying" class at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge, Colorado, and I've been impressed by the interest and openness of the students who have participated. Each of them has enrolled in the class for their own personal reasons -- some to fulfill a requirement for a degree, some to augment their training in a medical or behavioral health field, some who are just curious about death and dying, and few who are coping with their own issues of loss and grief.

I recently spoke with the teacher of the class, Stacy Smith, to learn how she started the class and to glean her recommendations for others who might want to do the same thing in their own communities. Stacy has a master's in community counseling and has always had a special interest in grief counseling and end-of-life issues. So when CMC offered her the possibility of teaching a psychology class on death and dying, it was a perfect fit for her.

Smith now says that she has learned as much as her students by teaching the class because of the research she has done for the curriculum and the guest speakers who have lectured. When she was recently called upon to offer grief support to a local company that suffered a sudden traumatic death of an employee, Smith says she was well-prepared to handle all the questions and concerns raised by the staff members she counseled.

If you feel inspired to teach a death and dying class yourself, here are Smith's top recommendations for making it a great experience:

1. Investigate the teaching credentials you'll need.

Many community colleges require a master's degree or Ph.D. in order to teach a class so you should find out if you meet the criteria of your local college by contacting the human resources department. Also, be prepared to demonstrate your expertise in this area -- having experience and knowledge about the end-of-life is essential to creating a transformative class.

2. Invite guest lecturers.

Since you can't possibly know everything about every aspect of death and dying, plan to invite a number of expert guests from your community to provide lectures to your class. Smith has included an attorney who specializes in end-of-life planning, the county coroner, a hospice physician, and a funeral director in her curriculum, but you could also include a death midwife, green burial specialist, caregiver or patient.

3. Schedule field trips.

Smith takes her students to visit a local cemetery and has them search for the oldest gravesite or the youngest person buried there or some other interesting detail because it provides a focus for the visit and helps the students get comfortable in those surroundings. They later process their feelings about the experience in a classroom discussion. You could also visit a local funeral home, crematorium, hospice or long-term care facility.

4. Utilize films.

There are a number of excellent end-of-life documentary films that can inspire students and stimulate discussion. Smith's students told me that viewing How to Die in Oregon was one of the best activities of the class. Other films to consider are A Will for the Woods, Death Makes Life Possible, Prison Terminal, Love in Our Own Time, or Death: A Love Story.

5. Assign popular books as required reading.

Smith's students all read Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom as part of the class and there are other inspiring books you could include as part of an end-of-life curriculum such as The Legacy Letters by Carew Papritz, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, M.D., or my book What Really Matters.

6. Be creative.

One popular extra-credit activity in Smith's class is to take a tour of a local "haunted house" and write a paper about the experience. She also has her students write their own obituaries and form "family" units that plan fictional funerals for one another.

7. Don't shy away from controversy.

Smith devotes one class period to a discussion of Death With Dignity laws and presents various perspectives on the subject. Students told me they hadn't known anything about this topic until taking the class and they were grateful for the information and insights they received.

8. Make it fun.

One of Smith's best attributes as a teacher is her sense of humor, which lightens the mood in the classroom and endears her to her students. Many of them have told me that her class is the best class they've ever taken and that Smith is their favorite teacher. Even though death and dying is a serious subject remember to take it lightly and find humor wherever possible.

If you are still wondering whether or not it would be worthwhile to teach a class on death and dying, consider the feedback Smith has received from her former students: they have reported to her that "the class changed their entire view on death and the dying process, which in turn has them living their lives differently," and "they indicate feeling much more comfortable with mortality and more prepared for death in general."

This outcome is exactly what is needed to eventually transform the cultural awareness of death and dying in our country. As palliative care specialist Ira Byock, M.D. states in his book The Best Care Possible:

"Each generation can further weave, and thereby strengthen, or neglect and weaken, the civilized fabric it hands down to the next. The loom is currently ours."

If you are qualified to teach future leaders about death and dying please consider using your knowledge and expertise to start such a class; if not, inspire someone else to become an end-of-life teacher by helping to create a curriculum and find guest lecturers. Let's do our part to "strengthen the fabric" of our society by confronting fears and erasing stigmas about the end-of-life, one classroom at a time.

About the Author:
Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at