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Thanatology, a class and one student's perspective

It seems that very few people have had any education in this important topic.


The purpose of this page can be grouped into two categories:

  1. To inspire educators towards offering and/or teaching a class in Thanatology, potentially in High School.
  2. To offer some education and thoughts to those of ALL ages who choose to read this page. I hope this page will also provide, among other things, some peace, compassion, and acceptance. Through what is gained, readers may have a better ability to be more comfortable and supporting to themselves, family members, friends, and most importantly, to the person going through process of dying.


When I was in high school, my school offered a class in Thanatology. We were given a choice of several short elective courses, and we had to pick a couple. I don't recall if they described much at all about what the class was going to cover.

The school sent home a permission slip that had to be signed off before we were able to take the class. The High School presented a very brief permission slip, something like:

I give my son/daughter: __________________ permission to take a class in Thanatology.
Parent signature: _________________________

Now unless you are in a job such as a nurse, work with elderly, went to a Catholic school, or you are in education such as a teacher, you may not know what Thanatology is. Most people I talk to have never heard the word. So being the typical busy parents, I don't know that my parents knew what it was, or looked it up. Maybe they just thought if I wanted to take the class, why not. Regardless, they signed the permission slip, and I was admitted into the class.

The first day of class

Let me tell you a few details about how the class was conducted. On the first day of class, this man (our class instructor) comes into our room, and it's not one of our teachers. He was also dressed more casual then our teachers were dressed. He may have been wearing dark green khaki pants, casual shirt, and may have had a buzz cut. The point is, he both looked different and was different from our teachers, and that may have been beneficial by allowing students to feel more comfortable with talking about such personal feelings. He had a quiet, positive, and conservative demeanor.

After some introduction about what he would be covering in the class, he started on his first question:

"If a person says they are going to commit suicide, should you stop them?"

Then he was silent.

Now try to imagine if you can, what it might have been like if you were in a high school class with a room full of students after he had just asked that question. You could have heard a pin drop. I imagine the teacher saw a classroom full of "interesting" expressions from students. I don't remember if anybody moved, let alone had an answer. 

Personally, I do remember having thoughts racing through my mind. I remember being faced with a moral dilemma. Certainly, nobody had ever talked to me about the topic of suicide, let alone the question about stopping someone else. I was taught that people have "the (personal) right to live their own lives." We live in America. I thought, "Do I have the right to stop or interfere with complete stranger or a friend from attempting suicide?" In our family, we had never talked about "stuff like that."

So after a long pause he said:

"I think you should and here is why."

He went on to talk about how, even when situations in life come up that can be very hard for you, the truth is:

NO problem is too big that it can't be solved.

It usually means learning how to solve the problem. It may take additional help from others, similar to teams that hire coaches. The problem is that people may not be able to see a solution when things are tough. If I recall correctly, he also said he believed that there is no problem that is bigger than the value of life. He also said that suicide offers NO second chances.

He went on to say that if the person IS given a second chance, that he was confident that with help, that person could solve the problem and move on.

Given that, he reiterated the message that he felt that the right thing to do was to assist, when possible, to help stop someone from committing suicide.

Later in life, I realized that without saying it, he was also sending a message to all of us in the classroom teaching us not to commit suicide and why not. Considering that high school and college students tend to have a higher suicide rate; his lesson quite possibly could have been priceless. Just maybe his message of stopping someone else from committing suicide could have later saved lives.

Other classroom topics

In a later class, he asked us:

"What do you do if you're depressed in order to get yourself un-depressed?"

He then gave several solutions. For example, he said if you find you're depressed, to do something that you are good at and go do it. Say you were good at basketball, if you are depressed, go play basketball. Then he said, when you're not depressed, be sure to continue to play and enjoy basketball.

Our teacher also talked about the five stages of grief (wiki) by Elizabeth KüRoss, something I feel was very educational and helpful.

If you noticed, the teacher had weaved into the Thanatology curriculum at least two incredibly important topics:

  1. Understanding the pitfalls of suicide.
  2. How to handle depression.

They fit well, and other topics could be added. Learned Helplessness is a topic that could be taught here, if it's not taught elsewhere. Another possible topic, one that I wish I had learned earlier in life, (a topic which may or may not fit in a High School class), was the "Top five regrets of the dying."

In another class, he talked about how death is handled differently around the world.

He also had a funeral director come in and talk about the process of going through planning a funeral service. The funeral director talked about topics such as the options at a funeral home, picking a casket, cremation, as well as ballpark prices. The funeral director even talked about how you should be careful, as some funeral homes may try to talk you into a more expensive casket then really may be necessary, so he advised not to put money into a service based on how much you loved the person.

I also think that it is important to have wills, living wills, and other documents, and they should be discussed ahead of time. Sometimes stressful issues may arise between family and/or friends with different opinions on how to best take care of an ill person. If that person has not expressed to all family members what his or her wishes might be if they, for example, can't make decisions for themselves. I know stories of families who have broken apart due to the consequences of someone dying, and the decisions that were made while or after that person died. These problems could likely stem from not having clear and detailed wills and/or living wills that a non-interested party such as an attorney, instead of a family or friend, held in advance.

Another topic could include how do deal with the death of a loved one, as discussed in Healing emotional wounds.

Since I've only discussed a few of the topics he covered, further topic suggestions could be found in books such as Handbook of Thanatology (amazon), other Thanatology classes, knowledgeable teachers, and nurses or other health care professionals.

Thoughts from others

When I talked to a friend Anthony at the YMCA about this topic, he said he had gone to Catholic school and had taken a class in Thanatology. He had felt it was very useful, as he knew of one classmate that had a mother dying from cancer. He said how much it has helped him when his father had died when Anthony was young.

After hearing what Anthony got out of his class, I was reminded that each student would get something different, so one goal when designing such a class would be to try to find the top most important topics to cover in such a class.

When I was planning to write this page, I was talking to a friend Kevin at my YMCA. Kevin is a part owner of a family owned funeral service. We were talking about the idea of having Thanatology taught in schools as an elective. When we were discussing how little death is typically talked about, I looked at his face. With sadness in his expression, he said to me:

"You won't believe how many blank faces stare at me. It's like people never expected it to happen."


I wonder if people were more comfortable with the process of dying, if less people would end up in nursing homes.

I remember when I was very young going to my first funeral. At the gathering after the service, I remember the majority of people being quiet, and it seemed like many adults were drinking.

I remember through the years people talking about how uncomfortable they were when they went to their first funeral.


I feel the Thanatology class was very beneficial to me. For example, even as a child, I never ever thought about committing suicide. However, I think adding this topic into the course helped reinforce the value of the gift of life for me, and I would suspect others as well. The class offered some valuable life tools.

It clearly helped me feel more comfortable with thinking and talking about death and dying, instead of being scared and uncomfortable with what to say or do. The education has allowed me to "be there" and support people who wanted to talk about death. It has allowed me to feel more comfortable with the process of death and maybe most importantly, the ability to better support people (and pets) as they were dying.

What I invite you to consider is to think about the following:

Several years ago, a friend Carla who volunteers at a hospice said to me:

"The two most intimate times in life are when a person is born, and when they die."

It seems for many people, at least in America, death is a taboo topic, and the process of learning and talking about it can help to remove fear. Just the fact that so many people are uncomfortable with talking about death indicates to me that people are likely fearful about the topic. I think that if everybody was more comfortable with it, families and friends could set aside any interpersonal conflicts (if any), support each other, and primarily focus on how they can best support with love, the person who is dying. Maybe it could be a more intimate time for all.

Thanks Abington Heights High School for offering this class! Thank you for reading this.

Thank YOU for reading this!

By David Morgan

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This page updated 03/22/19 05:12 PM