The bright blue of the paint on campus and the golden sunlight of Los Alamitos High School in Southern California couldn’t seem farther from the idea of death. Students rush to class, most with their thoughts on Prom, what they are getting from the snack bar or if they can hide the ear buds from their iPods and cellphones just long enough to finish that one song. For English teacher Lori Franzen’s students, however, death is never far from their minds. Lori Franzen has been teaching Thanatology for about 10 years, though believes the class has been running at the high school since the 1980’s. “It’s the light point in my day, if that makes any sense,” she says while preparing handouts for her class. Taught as an elective course, Thanatology (or the study of death) has a waiting list for students and they take the course very seriously. The students read books such as On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, study the steps of grief, and even visit a local Mortuary to understand the thing that so many people fear.
One of the most impressive features of the Thanatology course is the invitation to outside speakers to come in and discuss their beliefs on death, dying and what happens to a human being after their physical body is no longer breathing. Both a
representative of the Protestant and Mormon faiths had already spoken to the teenagers about what they believe earlier in the Semester. On the day I joined Ms. Franzen’s classroom, the subject of the day was Pagan beliefs and practices with local speaker Patrick Wilson. Wilson has been addressing the Thanatology class for the past five years, each time providing a talk on his personal beliefs and offering ample time for student questions. Wilson admitted to being nervous before the talk. “You never know what a teenager is going to ask,” he said. As expected, Wilson deftly answered questions from everything to pagan funeral rituals to ghost and quija boards. When asked if pagans are still being persecuted for their beliefs, he simply answered “yes.” The students were so enraptured with the talk that they remained silent for most of Wilson’s presentation. When he asked why they were so quiet, one student simply responded “we are being respectful, sir.” When the bell rang for lunch, several students stayed behind to ask for book references and to sneak in just a few final questions. According to Lori Franzen “it’s always the same students who stay after class.”
I will admit to wishing my high school had offered such a course. Death is something that adults are expected to understand, but so rarely do we make sure our children understand until an emergency or sudden death. The Thanatology