New Paltz High School teacher George Campbell taught chemistry, biology and for 20 years, a course on death and dying called “Death Education.”
The class began in 1975 with just 17 kids but by the mid-1980s it typically had more than 70 students enrolled and was one of the most popular courses at the school. Police officers and morticians came in to speak and there were class trips to hospitals and the morgue. A textbook on teaching death that Campbell wrote is available online. Digital Dying recently spoke with him about his experience as what seems to be the country’s first and only high school death ed teacher.
1. How did you convince the school to run a class on death?
I taught the class for a few weeks just as an experiment. Some kids from my oceanography class who knew me as a teacher joined and were really interested. Then I went to the principal, he was very liberal and encouraged me but said we had to get permission from the board of education. Just by coincidence a medical doctor and a funeral director I had come in and talk for that initial class were members of the board of education, so these people stood up for me and thought it was a great idea. There was only one member who objected, she thought it would be a difficult topic for the students. Interestingly enough she was the daughter of a minister. But the others overruled her. After that it went smoothly.
2. How did students respond to the class?
Death is a common denominator and everyone is headed in that direction. No one wants to talk about it but everyone is interested. When my class was as big as 90 students most were seniors. There was a potential for disaster. If you were teaching a class in social studies or something else with that many students you would constantly be throwing people out of the room for not behaving themselves properly, but I wasn’t. The kids didn’t have any exams or any textbooks but because they were so interested it was self-motivating. Every type of student took the class, intellectuals, jocks, sons and daughters of funeral directors. Some students were intimidated initially because they were programmed to not respond when they had intellectuals near them, but they all contributed.
3. Were you ever concerned your class would make kids suicidal?
Many kids had emotional catharsis in my class. I had kids that had never realized that their underlying emotional issues were related to a fear of dying. I had kids that told their 90 classmates about things that they had never told anyone before, and it made them feel better. I guess it’s part of my personality, I just have the ability to handle these issues, you don’t necessarily need a therapist’s couch or drugs. I was very leery that someone might commit suicide while enrolled in the class, especially during the first few years. But I did a pre and a post test, evaluating student’s thoughts both before and after the course. After a few years I realized that if anything the course was making kids come out better, rather than hurting them.
4. Should death education be taught in every high school?
Death is the basis for most of the psychological problems we have today, and for most of the mental illness we have today. To avoid teaching this in high school is a crime. But you can’t demand it be taught in high school because there are not that many people who can teach it. You can go to college and study how to teach chemistry, but you can’t do the same for death. After I gave it up no one would teach the class. Some people have issues with death and don’t want to talk about it.
5. How did teaching the course change your own views on death?
I don’t necessarily go out have a few beers and start talking about death education, but I am very comfortable talking about death. When I was teaching the class many people would ask me questions about it. As one student said, it was a course on how to live, not how to die. Once you spend time thinking about death, you realize that certain things you think are important are not, and other things you think are not important are.