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College students explore the meaning of death

Members of the class listen to Cecil Burton, owner of Cecil M. Burton Funeral Home and Crematory in Shelby, NC
Members of the class listen to Cecil Burton, owner of Cecil M. Burton Funeral Home and Crematory in Shelby, NC

For the past three months, a class at Gardner Webb University in Cleveland County has been learning about death. The class is called Death in American Culture. The course examines how the living deal with the dead and what that says about us. Over the past seven years, it has become one of the most popular honors seminars the Christian college offers. The class challenges students to take a sometimes uncomfortable look at the inevitable.Death in American Culture is the brainchild of June Hobbs. It's probably not surprising that she's the editor of the Journal for the Association of Gravestone Studies. But she's also the head of Gardner Webb's English Department.

"I must say the proposal was not well-received at first. I had several people on campus tell me things like, 'Well, you know, you're going to keep people from completing their honors requirement because nobody will take a class that's morbid.' It's turned out to be the most fun I've ever had," says Hobbs.

Seven years later, honors students regularly fill her small seminar that explores the culture and economics of how Americans have buried their dead through the centuries. "I think there's some of it at first for students that's the shock value of going home and telling people, 'Well, I have this class on death.' A lot of it is a quick immersion into all of the things that makes us human," explains Hobbs. That includes the way we grieve.

On this evening, the class is getting a lesson from Cecil Burton. He's the owner of Cecil M Burton Funeral Home and Crematory in Shelby. "We want to make a memory picture. We want that family to see their loved one," says Burton. He's holding up a tool of his trade, a bottle of pink embalming chemicals that preserve the body and give it a rosy complexion.

"What's the longest amount of time you've spent on something like that," asks one student.

"Eight hours," begins Burton. "Sometimes we'll have to take hair from the back of the head to put for eyelashes or eyebrows. I had a baby one time. The baby died. When they did the autopsy, when they took the brain out part of the eyelid came out. This little infant. And so the mother said, 'We have to see the baby.' So I had to build the eyelid back. And I took some of the hair from the back to make eyelashes and they couldn't tell. And they never knew about it. But they got to see the baby and have closure. And that's what it's all about. It helps the grieving process."

This isn't an easy lesson for Matthew Kiggen. He plans to become a minister. "I was sure I was prepared for death. I was fine. I was just going take the class to help my ministry to other people. But I'm not any of those things yet. The more I understand it the less comfortable I become with it," says Kiggen.

There are several people like him. They're taking this class because they think it'll help them be better at their job. Candice Linnens is a patient advocate in an emergency department. "In my career now, I deal with death on a daily basis and I've seen how many different reactions across the board there are. I wanted to delve deeper into death and learn about the different cultures and processes and how to do that and why people react so differently and how to use it in my ministry to help other people," explains Linnens.

Cecil Burton's funeral home doesn't match some of the students' expectations. They had imagined a dark, dank place, run by a sleazy funeral director. Hobbs says no matter the quality of the funeral home, they have changed the way we view death.

"As we went into the 20th century people began to professionalize death," explains Hobbs. "The undertaking business became professionalized and people no longer laid out their dead at home. They went to a funeral home. People stopped dying at home; they died in hospitals. And so people gradually made death more strange and exotic and odd. And it had to be pushed a way."

The class forces students to push death back into the open. Visiting a hospice center, a cemetery, and Burton's funeral home are all part of the plan to confront it. The final exam will ask students to go a bit further and answer how they plan to live the rest of their lives, knowing what they know about death.