Avoid or accept death? Students reflect on planning own funerals

Students visit funeral homes near Chapman like the Shannon Family Mortuary on East Maple Avenue, as a part of their funeral home assignment. KALI HOFFMAN Photo Editor

Each semester, a new classroom is filled with inquisitive students intrigued to uncover the perplexities behind the taboo topic of death. Taught by Chapman sociology professor Bernard McGrane, the “Sociology of Death” course takes students on an enlightening journey to confront the reality of mortality.

It takes a conscious effort to confront the idea of your life ending, McGrane said. On some level, every human being knows that they are going to die; but some others refuse to believe that death will happen to them.

“There’s a quote by Woody Allen that says, ‘I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ That encapsulates Western attitudes toward death,” McGrane said. “Out of sight, out of mind; it’s not going to happen to me.”

McGrane’s interest in teaching “Sociology of Death” stemmed from his earliest experiences with Buddhist teachings, as death and impermanence is a component of Tibetan Buddhism.

“I had an interest in Eastern philosophy and meditative ways. I started connecting with it very early on – philosophically and personally – in terms of my own practices and spirituality,” he said. “Through readings, I discovered so many different avenues on the history of death and dying and how radically that’s changed over the years. Through all of this, it came together as a course.”

In the McGrane’s course, one specific assignment seems to stand out to students most – the task of visiting a funeral home and planning one’s own funeral. Students began to organize their own funeral in detail – from finances to whether they would prefer a coffin burial or cremation. McGrane told The Panther that this investigative experience gives students access to the funeral industry, the state laws and the practical skills of arranging a funeral.

One of the funeral homes in close proximity to Chapman that students visited for their funeral home assignment is the Shannon Family Mortuary on East Maple Avenue in Orange. The Shannon family declined to comment

“I’m not always the most outgoing. To go and talk to a stranger about death was difficult,” said Andreas Ter-Borch, a senior sociology major. “But I didn’t expect the funeral industry to be a money-making machine. Not everyone can afford to give their loved ones the funeral they think they deserve.”

Although Ter-Borch doesn’t always feel comfortable talking about death, the course has helped him recognize the significance in doing so. He didn’t expect to become so emotionally invested in the class, but McGrane’s required journal writing became therapeutic for him, helping him understand that humans can’t fully enjoy the quality of life without first accepting death.

“We strive for longevity, even if the quality of life is bad,” Ter-Borch said. “We are way too focused on avoiding death rather than improving the quality of our lives and living our lives to the fullest.”

McGrane’s first taught the course in 1980 at Colby College in Maine, when it was titled “The Sociology of Death and Medicine.” In 1983, McGrane moved to California where he began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, renaming the course “Sociology of Death,” which he eventually transferred to Chapman. “When things weren’t as legally restrictive as they are now, I would take my students to watch autopsies,” McGrane said.

“I wanted them to be exposed to dead bodies.” Lily Florczak, a senior screen acting major and current student in this course, said that if observing autopsies was a part of McGrane’s curriculum today, she would feel uncomfortable, but ready for the exposure.

“His class prepares you for something like this,” Florczak said. “But I do think it would only be a good idea if people had the choice to opt out.”

Florczak enrolled in the class because she didn’t know how to handle death well and thought it would help her own growth.

“I have learned that grief is not a handbook or a series of rules that you follow and then you’re OK,” Florczak said. “It’s different and unique and intimate for everyone. Understanding that death is a part of life is a personal process one must go through in order to heal.”