Death Education

Charles A Corr & Donna M Corr. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Death education is in many ways an awkward phrase that may convey undesirable meanings to some who hear or read it. One of its faults lies in the implication that it refers to a type of education intended for or aimed at those who are already dead. Alternatively, some may incorrectly think that it refers to explaining to living people what the state of death is really like. We begin this chapter by illustrating the proper meaning of the term death education by listing and discussing briefly some of the many subjects that fall within the scope of education about dying, death, and bereavement. After that, we look at several examples of death education in action, four central dimensions of this type of education, and its principal goals. We also offer some comments concerning who might be interested in death-related education and who might find themselves functioning as death educators, and we conclude with some observations concerning lessons about life and living that can be learned from the study of dying, death, and bereavement.

What Does it Mean to Talk about “Death Education”?

The phrase death education is actually a shorthand expression for education about any death-related topic. Pine (1977, 1986) provides reviews of the early history of death education in the United States in two helpful articles. Currently, this type of education reaches across a broad range of topics, such as those found in college textbooks in the field (e.g., Corr, Nabe, and Corr 2003). These include the following:

Encounters with death: This topic area includes the numbers of deaths in given populations, death rates, causes of death, average life expectancy, locations of death, and experiences with particular types of death, such as deaths from long-term degenerative diseases (diseases of the heart; cancers; neuromuscular diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; and dementing diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease) and their differences from deaths caused by communicable diseases.

Attitudes toward death: This area includes death anxiety as well as individuals’ attitudes about their own dying or death, about the dying or death of someone else, or about what happens after death.

Death-related practices: This topic area covers practices related to death within a given death system (e.g., contemporary American practices), such as language about death, the media’s relationship with death, and human-induced forms of death (including accidents and homicide).

Dying: This area includes the ways in which people die as well as the ways in which they cope with dying and help those who are coping with dying. It also includes societal programs that are concerned with caring for the dying or end-of-life care, such as hospice programs and programs of palliative care.

Bereavement: This area includes death-related losses, the grief that follows a death, mourning or coping with loss and grief, anticipatory grief and mourning, disenfranchised grief, ways to help those who are coping with loss and grief, and societal programs concerned with caring for persons who are coping with loss and grief (such as support groups for the bereaved, hospice bereavement follow-up programs, and aftercare programs in the funeral industry).

Funeral practices and memorial rituals: This area includes different forms of body disposition, cemeteries, memorial sculpture, and memorial photography.

Experiences with death among different developmental cohorts or different cultural groups: This area includes death experiences among particular groups, such as children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly or Hispanics, African Americans, Asian or Pacific Islander Americans, and Native Americans.

Coping with HIV/AIDS: This area includes coping with infection from the human immunodeficiency virus and deaths resulting from acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Suicide: This area includes common patterns in suicidal behavior, attempts to explain or improve understanding of such behavior, interventions designed to prevent or minimize suicidal behavior, the impact of suicide on bereaved survivors, and rational suicide (the concept itself, as well as arguments for and against this type of suicide).

Assisted suicide and euthanasia: This area covers what assisted suicide and euthanasia mean in themselves, for individuals, and for societies, along with moral and religious arguments pro and con.

Legal issues: This area includes such death-related legal issues as advance directives (living wills and durable powers of attorney in health care matters); definition and determination of death; organ, tissue, and body donation; and disposition of the property of a deceased individual.

Religious, philosophical, or spiritual views: This area concerns various views about the meaning of death and its place in human life.

Near-death experiences: This area includes near-death experiences and various paranormal experiences of the bereaved.

This list is inevitably incomplete, but it illustrates the broad and diverse spectrum of subjects covered by death education.

Examples of Death Education in Action

We can best illustrate the many different types of educational efforts that have to do with some of the subjects we have just described by offering several examples of death education in action.

Example 1: Life Experiences and Death Education

A book titled The Dead Bird (Brown 1958) describes a situation in which some children come across a dead bird in a field. Although its body is still warm, the children realize that the bird is no longer alive. Its eyes are closed, they are not able to feel the beating of its heart, and its body gradually becomes cold and still as they touch it. So they decide to have a funeral for the bird, “the way grown-up people did when someone died.” They dig a grave in the woods, line it with warm sweet ferns, wrap the bird in grapevine leaves, and put the wrapped bird in the ground, placing more ferns and flowers on top of its body. Then they sing a song and cover the grave with dirt and more flowers. Finally, the children put a stone on top of the grave—on which they have written “HERE LIES A BIRD THAT IS DEAD”—and plant some flowers around it. “And every day,” the story tells us, “until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.”

This story has many interesting features. Because the bird does not act or feel like the living animals they have known, the children promptly realize that it is dead. They are sad for the bird, but they are also pleased in a way that they can act out a funeral and burial ceremony, thereby trying out and imitating some adult behaviors they have previously observed. Those points, and the story itself, provide interesting materials for informal death education. The general form of this event is immediately recognizable. It might apply not only to wild animals, but to pets or companion animals in a home, such as dogs, cats, fish, small caged animals (such as gerbils and hamsters), and birds (such as parakeets and songbirds). Children of any age may encounter and learn about death when unplanned events take place in their own life experiences, and, as in the case of the story related above, this may happen without any direct input from adults.

Example 2: Informal Death Education in the Home

Perhaps the most common type of informal death education occurs in people’s homes and/or within religious or cultural groups when parents, grandparents, religious or cultural leaders, and other adults convey messages to children and adolescents about death-related events. For example, children learn important lessons as they observe how adults act when someone known to them is dying, when a death occurs, or when a significant other is bereaved. Unfortunately, some adults teach children that they should not talk about such events, but many other adults involve children and adolescents in caring activities while also addressing their own needs.

Informal death education of this type can become a bit more structured when proactive adults create opportunities to talk about death (Corr 1984a). Earl Grollman offers a guidebook for such interactions in Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child (1990), which includes a read-along-together section as a basis for such a dialogue, guidelines for adults to use in explaining death to a child, and suggestions about various types of additional resources. Another way in which adults can create opportunities for death-related interactions with children is to provide them with books about death-related topics that they can read by themselves or along with an adult. An extensive body of this type of literature is now available that addresses a broad range of death-related topics and is designed for young readers of nearly all ages and reading abilities (Corr, 2000, 2001, 2002a). For example, a brief list, with selections limited to literature intended for preschool and elementary school readers, might include the following:

• Simple stories about animals or cartoon characters, such as Aarvy Aardvark Finds Hope (O’Toole 1988), Badger’s Parting Gifts (Varley 1992), The Fall of Freddie the Leaf (Buscaglia 1982), Lifetimes (Mellonie and Ingpen 1983), Liplap’s Wish (London 1994), Thumpy’s Story (Dodge 1984), Timothy Duck: The Story of the Death of a Friend(Blackburn 1987), Tough Boris (Fox 1994), and When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Brown and Brown 1996)

  • Activity books, such as Saying Goodbye (Boulden 1989) and When Someone Very Special Dies (Heegaard 1988)
  • Books in which children encounter the death of an animal, such as The Accident (Carrick 1976), Charlotte’s Web (White 1952), The Dead Bird (Brown 1958), I’ll Always Love You (Wilhelm 1985), Mustard (Graeber 1982), The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Viorst 1971), and When Violet Died (Kantrowitz 1973)
  • Books in which children encounter the death of a grandparent, such as Animal Crackers (Marshall 1998), The Happy Funeral (Bunting 1982), My Grandpa Died Today (Fassler 1971), My Grandson Lew (Zolotow 1974), Nonna (Bartoli 1975), and Why Did Grandpa Die? (Hazen 1995)
  • Books in which children encounter the death of a parent, such as Daddy’s Chair (Lanton 1991), The Mother Tree(Whitehead 1971), Rachel and the Upside Down Heart (Douglas 1990), and The Rag Coat (Mills 1991)
  • Books in which children encounter the death of a sibling or peer, such as Am I Still a Big Sister? (Weir 1992), Dusty Was My Friend (Clardy 1984), I Had a Friend Named Peter (Cohn 1987), Meggie’s Magic (Dean 1991), and A Taste of Blackberries (Smith 1973)

Among other titles for young readers are books with explicit religious or spiritual themes, such as Annie and the Sand Dobbies (Coburn 1964), The Next Place (Hanson 1997), Psalm Twenty-Three (Ladwig 1997), Water Bugs and Dragonflies (Stickney 1985), and What’s Heaven? (Shriver 1999), as well as books that offer Native American perspectives, such as Annie and the Old One (Miles 1971), Beyond the Ridge (Goble 1993), and The Great Change (Horn 1992). Some of these books and other similar titles might well be used in formal or informal ways in various programs of religious instruction for children of different ages.

The Barklay and Eve Activity and Coloring Books Series (Carney 1997–2001) is a fine series of eight books in which two young dogs ask questions about and explore issues of loss and sadness associated with such topics as funerals, sitting shivah, cremation, hospice, organ donation, and pet loss. And Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven (Rylant 1995, 1997) describe the delights that these animals might hope to find in their own special heavens. (Annotated descriptions and full bibliographic information about all of the books mentioned in Examples 1–3 as well as many other children’s books can be found in Corr 2000, 2001, 2002a.)

Example 3: Teachable Moments

A third kind of informal death education can be seen in two additional children’s books: We Remember Philip (Simon 1979) and Rudi’s Pond (Bunting 1999). Each of these tells the story of children who have death-related experiences; the son of the children’s grade school teacher dies in We Remember Philip, and a classmate of the children dies in Rudi’s Pond. With the cooperation of their teacher and assistance from the school principal and other adults, the children in We Remember Philip share a scrapbook and memories of Mr. Hall’s son and plant a tree as a class memorial. Similarly, while Rudi is ill, his special friend and their other classmates make a “Get Well Rudi” banner for his room at the hospital. After his death, their teacher helps them write poems about Rudi and staple them together to make a book. In addition, their school principal encourages them to make a more lasting memorial in the form of a pond under a big tree in the schoolyard. In these examples, life events enable young children to learn important lessons about death and loss while they also support those around them who are struggling with different death-related challenges.

Although both Examples 1 and 3 arise directly from life experiences and depict different forms of commemorative activities, they differ in that the cases in Example 3 involve the death of a human being (a classmate, a peer, a friend, or the relative of someone the children know well and look up to) rather than the death of a wild animal. Example 3 also puts before us “teachable moments,” unplanned life events from which important lessons can be drawn (Carson 1984; DeSpelder and Strickland 1995). In these teachable moments, adults play important roles in helping to explain some of the events to children and in guiding some of the activities. We could mention many other teachable moments here as well, such as those immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, with their accompanying widespread media coverage. All of these kinds of life events provide individuals with opportunities to learn important lessons about dying, death, and bereavement, especially from events in which some people serve as guides and mentors to others (and perhaps especially to children) in drawing out those lessons.

Example 4: Formal Death Education in Middle Schools and High Schools

Death-related instruction can now be found in various forms in many middle schools and high schools across the United States (Stevenson and Stevenson 1996; Weeks and Johnson 1992). Sometimes this takes the form of units in courses on biology, literature, current affairs, contemporary moral issues, or other subjects. In many secondary schools, however, death education rises to the level of a full-scale course that may be taught in various departments, including religion departments in parochial schools. Typically, formal courses on death and dying involve textbooks, reading assignments, lectures, class discussions, assigned projects, tests, and grades. Depending on the school, the instructor, the goals of the course, and the population it serves, this type of course may be similar to a college course in its topical scope, or it may focus on issues of special relevance to adolescents, such as helping them to understand and preparing them to cope with losses related to the leading causes of death in their age group—motor vehicle accidents, teen suicide, homicide, and HIV/AIDS. Often, courses of this type are associated with bereavement support groups in schools. Such courses might also be linked to peer counseling programs as part of efforts to minimize the likelihood of human-induced deaths among students or to address the consequences of such deaths (Wass, Miller, and Thornton 1990).

Example 5: Death and Dying Courses at the College or University Level

Formal courses on death and dying are now well established at many colleges and universities in North America. They are even more likely to be found in such settings than in secondary schools. These courses typically cover subject areas such as those listed near the beginning of this chapter. The staffing of such courses often depends on the expressed interests of specific instructors. As a result, they may be taught in many departments and schools, such as psychology, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, health education, nursing, and social work. Depending on how the courses are offered, their audiences may include individuals who have had prior experiences with death-related losses, individuals who are currently involved with ongoing death-related experiences, individuals who plan to enter into or are currently involved in some relevant form of work that touches on some aspect of death and loss (such as nursing, social work, special education, or volunteering with a hospice program), individuals who may wish to prepare themselves to cope more effectively with some death-related situation in the future, or individuals who are simply curious about what the subject involves (and who perhaps wonder why a “death and dying” course is one of the most popular classes on campus, as it often it). As noted earlier, a number of leading textbooks are available for such courses (e.g., Corr et al. 2003; DeSpelder and Strickland 2002; Kastenbaum 2001; Leming and Dickinson 2002), as is literature about how they might be organized (e.g., Corr 1978).

Example 6: Other Forms of Death Education at the College or University Level

In addition to broad survey courses on death and dying at the college level, there are also many more specialized educational programs in this broad field. For example, the Kings College Centre for Education About Death and Bereavement at Kings College in London, Ontario, has many offerings available, as the center’s Web site shows ( These include academic courses on bereavement and grief, palliative care, suicide, and spiritual, philosophical, and ethical issues in death and bereavement, as well as certificate offerings on crisis response, communication with the dying and bereaved, grief support groups, and creative responses to death and bereavement. The same Web site also provides information about many other death-related educational offerings at a long list of academic and other institutions in North America. For example, Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, offers a program in thanatology that includes a new master of arts degree, a certificate in thanatology, and a summer institute in this field, with courses such as “Developmental Perspectives in Thanatology,” “Historical and Multicultural Perspectives in Thanatology,” and “Mourning and Principles of Counseling the Bereaved.” Through its Hospice Education Department, Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan, also offers a unique university-based hospice program, with degrees in hospice education at the associate, bachelor, and master’s levels; concentrated course work in several cognate fields such as pastoral ministry, nursing, and education; and a master’s-level certificate program in bereavement. Courses in death education may also be offered not just as part of specific degree, academic major, or certificate programs, but as part of graduate education curricula for members of such professions as nursing, medicine, social work, funeral service, the law, and the clergy.

One further example of this type of specialized death education is found in credit-bearing, college-level courses on children and death of the type now being offered at a number of institutions of higher education. At first glance, it might seem that death-related topics involving children and adolescents are not sufficiently robust to sustain fullterm college courses, but in fact, such courses have available to them a broad range of subject matter. The areas such courses might explore include the historical-cultural situation of children and adolescents in our society in relationship to matters involving dying, death, and bereavement; the formation of death-related thoughts and attitudes during childhood and adolescence; strategies, tactics, and resources for death-related education and counseling for children and adolescents; child and parental bereavement; how bereaved children, siblings, peers, and adult family members can be helped by support groups and individual interventions; understanding and helping seriously ill and dying children, as well as their family members and caregivers; and special issues that are unique to adolescents in coping with death, such as adolescent suicide and becoming a bereaved parent during adolescence. Once again, there are text resources for such courses (e.g., Adams and Deveau 1995; Corr and Balk 1996; Corr and Corr 1996) as well as literature describing how they might be organized (Corr 1984b, 1992, 2002b).

Example 7: Death Education for Adults Outside Colleges and Universities

Adult education in the field of dying, death, and bereavement takes many forms. Among the most familiar of these programs are the following:

  • Continuing education courses, workshops, and conferences for professionals whose work is likely to involve interactions with dying or bereaved persons, such as nurses, physicians, social workers, funeral directors, lawyers, and members of the clergy
  • Clinical pastoral education designed for ordained pastors and chaplains and typically offered in health care institutions
  • A wide variety of educational offerings sponsored by hospice programs, either for their own professional and volunteer lay staff members or for the communities they serve
  • Programs designed to build skills or enhance teamwork in postvention after a large-scale disaster or traumatic loss (such as that experienced in connection with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks)

Two specific examples of community-based deathrelated education are evident in Widow-to-Widow programs and the Stephen Ministries. Widow-to-Widow programs began in the Boston area with a focus on a public health (as opposed to an illness or mental health) perspective, the key idea of bereavement as transition, and confidence in the value of “mutual help” offered by those who have been previously bereaved (Silverman 1986). This type of program is perhaps now best known through the Widowed Persons Service of the AARP (information on this service is available from AARP Grief and Loss Programs, 601 E Street, NW, Washington, DC 20049; telephone [800] 424-3410 or [202] 434-2260; Web site The Stephen Ministries organization is a Christian, transdenominational ministry that provides leadership training through 7-day courses, print and other resources, and ongoing support for Stephen Leaders in enrolled congregations and other organizations. In turn, Stephen Leaders prepare members of their organizations to be Stephen Ministers who will provide direct, one-to-one care to troubled individuals who are coping with issues concerning dying, death, or bereavement. (More information is available from Stephen Ministries, 2045 Innerbelt Business Center Drive, St. Louis, MO 63114-57765; telephone [314] 428-2600; Web site

As these examples show, death education programs for adults are diverse, and each takes its own particular form. The audiences to which programs are addressed shape them in important ways, as do the particular subjects they emphasize, the goals they are intended to serve, and the instructional resources on which they draw. This can be seen clearly in statements of assumptions and principles about death-related education, such as the separate statements published by the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement (1991a, 1991b) for professionals in health care and human services and for volunteers and nonprofessionals. Still, all forms of adult education in the field of dying, death, and bereavement—including special programs on public television presented by Bill Moyers and others—are linked together by a shared concern about the losses and the challenges associated with death and by a desire to improve interventions to aid those who encounter such losses and challenges.

Dimensions of Death Education

As the seven examples presented above illustrate, deathrelated education may be conducted in many different settings and many different ways. What these examples all have in common is the emphasis they place on one or more of the four central dimensions of death education: what people know, how they feel, how they behave, and what they value (Corr 1995). These are the cognitive, affective, behavioral, and valuational dimensions of death education—distinguishable but interrelated aspects of this educational process.

Death education is most obviously a cognitive or intellectual enterprise because it provides factual information about death-related experiences and tries to help individuals to understand or interpret those events. For example, we all know that how we live can put us at risk for death, but we may not realize that nearly half of all deaths in the United States arise from or are associated with behaviors, such as the use of tobacco (cigarettes, cigars, or chewing tobacco), diet and activity patterns, and the use of alcohol, firearms, illegal drugs, and motor vehicles (McGinnis and Foege 1993).

In addition to providing information, the cognitive dimension of death education can also suggest new ways of organizing or interpreting the data of human experience. A good example of this kind of cognitive reorganization took place during the early 1980s, when some physicians recognized that they were being confronted with a relatively rare form of skin cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma, which had previously been confined largely to a specific group of elderly males) in an unusually high number of young adult men. This helped to identify a new disease and cause of death, AIDS and HIV.

The affective dimension of death education has to do with feelings, emotions, and attitudes about dying, death, and bereavement. For example, a wide range of feelings are involved in experiences of loss and bereavement. Consequently, it is appropriate for education in this area to try to sensitize those who are not bereaved to the depth, intensity, duration, and complexities of grief following a death. To date, awareness of the complex nature of grief has not been communicated effectively to the public at large. As a result, many people still seem to think—erroneously—that a few days or weeks should be a more than adequate period for a bereaved person to “forget” or “get over” the death of an important person in his or her life. In fact, mourning a significant death is far more like an ongoing process of learning to live with a great loss than it is like solving a problem once and for all. Sharing and discussing grief responses is an important part of the affective dimension of education in the field of dying, death, and bereavement.

In another aspect of its affective dimension, death education seeks to appreciate the feelings that are expressed in interactions between those who have and those who have not yet encountered death in any personal form. For example, many bereaved persons have told us that when someone who is not bereaved says to them, “I know how you feel,” the claim seems insensitive and arrogant. How could someone who has not experienced their loss possibly know how they feel? To the bereaved, such statements (however well intentioned they may be) seem to diminish the uniqueness and poignancy of their loss. When those who have not encountered death in any personal form have such perceptions pointed out to them, they can come to appreciate more fully both their own feelings and the feelings of those who are bereaved.

Death education also has a behavioral dimension, as it explores why people act as they do in death-related situations, which of their behaviors are helpful or unhelpful, and how they could or should act in such situations. For example, contemporary Americans tend to try to avoid contact with situations involving dying, death, and bereavement, both in public and in private. Often, this is because they do not know what to say or what to do in such situations. Frequently, they pull back from contact with the dying or the bereaved, leaving people alone in very stressful circumstances, without support or companionship at a time when they may be in greatest need of sharing and solace.

By contrast, the modern hospice movement has shown that much can be done to help those who are coping with dying. Similarly, research on funeral rituals and on support groups for the bereaved has shown ways in which individuals and society can assist those who are coping with bereavement. This behavioral education points out the great value that is found simply in the presence of a caring person. It advises potential helpers not so much to talk to grieving persons as to listen to them. It can help individuals develop skills in interacting with persons who are experiencing or who have experienced a significant loss. One basic behavioral lesson from death education is this: “Be comfortable with your uncomfortableness” when you are in the presence of someone confronting a death-related challenge. It may be sufficient just to be present, sit quietly, and do nothing else when that is really all there is to do.

The valuational dimension of death education has to do with how it can help to identify, articulate, and affirm the basic values that govern human lives. Life as we know it is inextricably bound up with death. We would not have this life if death were not one of its essential parts. Life and death, living and dying, attachments and losses, happiness and sadness—neither alternative in these and many other similar pairings stands alone in human experience. Death provides an essential (and inescapable) perspective from which humans can try to achieve an adequate understanding of their own lives.

Much of what we have already said directs attention to that which is valued: courage, endurance, resilience, concern for others, love, and community. Such values often come sharply into focus when adults are asked what they will tell their children about death and how they will respond to the moral problems of our time. Most bereavement experts recommend that adults not attempt to hide death from children; adults should not portray life as an unending journey without shadows or tears. Hiding death from children, even if we really could do that, will not prepare them to cope effectively with future losses, a pervasive aspect of the human experience. Death education encourages adults to introduce children to the realities of life and death in ways that are appropriate to their developmental levels and capacities. Death education also nurtures and supports mature values that will enable children to live wisely and cope with death constructively.

Reflecting on values is also closely related to many of the death-related challenges that confront us at the beginning of the 21st century: the threat of nuclear warfare and terrorism, epidemics and their prevention, famine and malnutrition, dislocation of populations, capital punishment, abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and all of the quandaries posed by modern medicine and its complex technologies.

Goals of Death Education

When education is well planned, the educator always has in mind some general goals and specific objectives that he or she hopes to accomplish for and with those who are engaged in the activity. For example, college courses are commonly designed to encourage critical thinking in order to help individuals learn to judge for themselves the value, meaning, and validity of subjects they address. Education about dying, death, and bereavement incorporates these broad aims and typically links them to more limited purposes (Corr 1995).

We were challenged to think about our own goals shortly after we first began teaching a course on death and dying. With no advance notice, we received the following letter from a person who had not been in our course and whom we did not know:

October 16, 1975

Dear Dr. Corr,
Want to thank you for your course “Death and Dying.” Not having been in your classroom, you might wonder what prompts me to write this letter. My mother was one of the most dedicated Christians we in our lives have ever known. She became very ill and it took 54 days, in and out of an Intensive Care Unit, for her to die. Doc and I spent as much time as humanly possible at her side. One day she looked at me with her beautiful soft brown eyes and said, “Why didn’t anyone teach me how to die? We are taught at our mother’s knee how to live but not how to die.”

Hope your course will help people through this experience because we will all have a turn unless the Rapture comes first.

God bless you,

Dr. and Mrs. S. Koerner

We appreciated Mrs. Koerner’s kind words about our course, but we were also a bit perplexed: How should we evaluate her comments? Should we really take credit for teaching people how to die, as Mrs. Koerner seemed to think we were doing? That challenged us to say exactly what it was that we sought to accomplish in our courses. As we return to this issue from time to time, we now think there are several basic goals in this type of education:

Above all, education about dying, death, and bereavement seeks to enrich the personal lives of those to whom it is directed. In the end, as the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is reported to have said, “the really important thing is not to live, but to live well” (Plato 1948, Crito:48b). Death education contributes to this goal by helping individuals to understand themselves more fully and to appreciate both their strengths and their limitations as finite human beings.

A second goal of death education is to inform and guide individuals in their personal transactions with society. It does this by making them aware of services that are available to them and options that they might or might not select in such matters as end-of-life care, funeral practices, and memorial rituals.

A third goal of death education is to prepare individuals for their public roles as citizens. It does this by clarifying some important social issues that face society and its representatives, such as advance directives in health care, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and organ and tissue donation.

A fourth goal of death education is to support individuals in their professional and vocational roles. Those whose work involves teaching young people about death, caring for the dying, or counseling the bereaved can benefit from the perspectives offered by a well-grounded death education.

A fifth goal of death education is to enhance the ability of individuals to communicate effectively about death-related matters. Effective communication is essential when one is addressing death-related topics, which may be challenging for many people (Strickland and DeSpelder 1995). Principles that can guide effective communication are at the heart of education about dying, death, and bereavement.

A sixth goal of death education is to assist individuals in appreciating how development across the human life course interacts with death-related issues. Children and adolescents, as well as young, middle-aged, and older adults, face issues that are dissimilar in many ways, and they are likely to differ in the ways in which they confront and cope with dying, death, and bereavement.

Who Might be Interested in Death-related Education?

There once was a time when those who were teaching or otherwise taking part in courses on death and dying repeatedly heard from others that such courses must be “morbid.” But that is not at all true if the word morbid is meant to suggest an experience that is gloomy, dark, melancholy, gruesome, sinister, macabre, or even perverse. In actual fact, the root meaning of the word morbid is “unhealthy,” whereas death-related education is vital and healthy; it is sometimes sad, but often cheerful. As we used to say, “At our university, courses on death and dying are alive and well!”

People do not seek out education about dying, death, and bereavement in order to become depressed. Their personal interests correspond roughly to the goals that we have just identified for death-related education. For example, some have personal concerns that they wish to address. Like the children described earlier in Examples 1 and 3 who encountered a dead bird, a dying classmate, and a bereaved teacher, many become interested in deathrelated education because they are seeking help and guidance in coping with personal experiences. Death-related education is not counseling, but it can and should be sensitive to the concerns of those who seek such education. Education in this field can provide information about death-related experiences, point the way to resources that might be useful, and provide a supportive environment in which individuals can work through their issues, whether those issues arise from events in the past or events that are current and ongoing.

Some people come to death-related education because they hope to prepare themselves to be effective in future involvements, either personal or vocational. Those who observe the aging of a beloved grandparent or who anticipate the decline of a significant other who is currently in the early stages of a degenerative disease often want to try to ready themselves for the death-related challenges they may face in the future. Similarly, those who are entering or who are already engaged in a relevant form of work, such as nursing, medicine, social work, funeral service, the ministry, the law, or volunteer service, often seek to develop or improve their skills for helping others.

Some proactive individuals are simply curious about the implications of dying, death, and bereavement and want to understand more fully what these realities mean for their own lives or for the lives of those around them, such as their children. These individuals appreciate how privileged we are to live in a society and at a time when death rates are lower than they have ever been in human history and average life expectancies are higher than ever before. Such people appreciate that although we have many advantages, we also have some responsibilities to live this life that is now ours with honesty and integrity. They know that attempting to push death out of the mainstream of life serves only to falsify the basic premises on which we live. We should not and need not become preoccupied with death, but we can attend to it in a proportionate way as one of the central dimensions of life. And we can do that with the assistance of death-related education.

Who Might Become a Death Educator?

The short answer to this question is: anyone. That is, anyone who becomes involved in any of the many types of educational activities related to dying, death, and bereavement—those we have noted in this chapter as well as others too numerous to mention here—might be thought of as a death educator. If we think of this type of education in a more formal way, however, a death educator is a person who has undertaken to prepare in specific ways for this role and who actually conducts informal or formal programs of death-related education. Such a person might be a member of one of the many academic and professional fields we have mentioned, but it has been our experience over many years that individual interests (frequently, but not always, interests precipitated by personal encounters with significant death-related losses), more than general academic or professional background, are most often the biggest factor leading individuals to engage in this type of education.

One prepares to conduct death-related education by (a) acquiring knowledge about various topics in this field; (b) exploring one’s own death-related attitudes; (c) developing effective communication skills, which include the ability to listen actively and respond constructively to the real needs of those who come to take part in this educational process; and (d) being willing to work cooperatively with other individuals, groups, and societal entities toward achieving the goals of death education (Corr 1984a). It is particularly important for those who wish to engage in death-related education to be aware of their own attitudes toward these subjects (insofar as that is possible), to try to recognize their own limitations, and to be prepared to offer support to individuals who may be struggling with personal death-related challenges or refer them for specialized professional assistance when that becomes appropriate or necessary (Attig 1992; Mahon, Goldberg, and Washington 1999). In this, educators need to realize that subjects related to death are not just objective topics that can be addressed in a distanced and depersonalized manner, as Kastenbaum (1977) has pointed out in an article with the ironic title “We Covered Death Today.”

The following are three useful sources from which individuals can obtain guidance and assistance related to education about dying, death, and bereavement:

  • Association for Death Education and Counseling, 342 North Main Street, West Hartford, CT 06117-2507; telephone (860) 586-7503; fax (860) 586-7550; fax on demand (860) 586-7533; Web site; e-mail [email protected]
  • Center for Death Education and Bioethics, Soc/Arc Department, 435NH, University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, WI 54601; telephone (608) 785-6781; fax (608) 785-8486; e-mail [email protected]
  • Kings College Centre for Education About Death and Bereavement, 266 Epworth Avenue, London, ON, Canada N6A 2M3; telephone (519) 432-3491; fax (519) 432-0200; Web site; e-mail [email protected]

Death-Related Education and Lessons about Life and Living

The most fundamental thing that one learns from education about dying, death, and bereavement is that in many ways it is really education about life and living (International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement 1992). As the list of topics we provide at the beginning of this chapter makes obvious, this form of education is about living people who are encountering death in various ways (for example, in the form of a life-limiting or life-threatening disease); experiencing or exploring various death-related attitudes; coping with dying or with loss, grief, and mourning; organizing and attending funerals or memorial services; helping children or adolescents cope with death; contemplating suicide or being affected by someone else who attempts or completes a suicide; debating the morality of assisted suicide and euthanasia; filling out advance directives; making decisions about becoming living organ donors or donating the organs and tissues of loved ones who have died; disposing of the property of someone who has died; examining religious or philosophical beliefs about death; or exploring the meaning of near-death experiences.

Many who teach about or study issues related to dying, death, and bereavement have identified for themselves some of the lessons about life and living that have emerged from that work. For example, the ways in which life and death, living and dying, are inexorably intertwined quickly reveals that humans are finite, limited beings. This has many implications for how we live, because it teaches us that although there are many things in life that we can control, there are many others that we cannot (even though we may sometimes be able to influence their outcomes). Death-related education reveals some specific things we can control even as it shows us many of the limitations that make our control less than complete.

Also, as we study death-related topics we recognize that in the end it is always an individual person who must deal with these particularized experiences: No one else can die our death or experience our grief. In this sense, death is always marked out by its unique individuality. But studying dying, death, and bereavement also teaches us that being human means being involved in community and being inescapably linked to other persons. We turn to others for assistance when we are dying or bereaved, and our deaths have impacts on those with whom we have formed attachments. Thus we learn that life and death involve both individuals and communities.

Again, although we often act as if we were invulnerable and might want to believe that we are, life and death both make our vulnerability to pain and suffering all too obvious. Still, we also learn from our studies of dying, death, and bereavement that this vulnerability is not the same as helplessness. We come to realize that most human beings have powerful coping capacities and are amazingly resilient. In fact, some persons respond to death-related challenges in ways that are ennobling and even awesome. Thus human beings find themselves endowed with both vulnerability and resilience.

Beyond this, our studies of death-related topics reveal the importance of quality in living and the human search for meaning. One man who was facing his own imminent death founded an organization called Make Today Count (Kelly 1975). In doing this, he implicitly recommended that we all should try to “make today count” for ourselves by striving to maximize the quality of our own lives right now and by appreciating that even though life is transient it can be meaningful and good. In addition, our studies show us that when death challenges the value of life, humans work hard to find sources of inspiration and religious or philosophical frameworks within which enduring meaning can be established. So quality in living and the search for meaning are significant issues for those who are coping with death as well as for those who are simply living their day-to-day lives.

Sometimes, we find these (and other) lessons about life and living to be evident throughout our programs in deathrelated education. At other times they are less obvious, lying just below the surface of our studies, but they are always there when we look closely at what we are doing. Those who are involved in death-related education can enrich their studies by bringing to light lessons like these about life and living.

As they look back on a course on death and dying, college students often say things like, “The class materials were about death and dying, yet I believe they are necessary instruction for ‘life and living’“ or “It is only when one is able to face the certainty of death that one can truly live.” We agree, and that is why we gave to our textbook in this field the title Death and Dying, Life and Living (Corr et al. 2003) and why we have been especially impressed by the following quotations, one from the former president of France and the other from a Canadian medical sociologist:

Never perhaps has our relationship with death been so poor as in these times of spiritual barrenness, where human beings, in their haste to exist, seem to sidestep the mystery. They do not realize that in so doing they rob the love of life of an essential source. (Mitterand 1995:9)

Death is no enemy of life; it restores our sense of the value of living. Illness restores the sense of proportion that is lost when we take life for granted. To learn about value and proportion, we need to honor illness, and ultimately to honor death. (Frank 1991:120)