Students of Death: Episode 16 of The Deep Dive

What makes teenagers sign up for a degree program about dealing with death?

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The music for this episode is a licensed version of “This Podcast Theme” by InPlus Music. Additional music are licensed versions of “Stay Cool” by Loops Lab, “Podcast Intro” by InPlus Music, “Both of Us” by Madirfan, “Oh My” by Patrick Patrikios, and “Young Ballad” by Serge Quadrado.



SIMRAN: We’re back with The Deep Dive, our weekly podcast that takes a deeper look at everything we’re creating at The Walrus. I’m Simran Singh.

ANGELA: And I’m Angela Misri. On this week’s episode:


SIMRAN: Since COVID-19, we have all become more aware of death. We are bombarded with data on a weekly basis, watching charts and calculating deaths, all while trying to function in our daily lives. But our anxieties around death are not new, even if this pandemic is bringing them front and centre. What’s new is that everyone is talking about death rather than just those directly affected by it.

ANGELA: Which leads us to this story about a degree program that deals with death, at a curriculum level. For those non-Canadians, King’s University College is based in London, Ontario, and David Swick wrote about the students who study THANATOLOGY, or death education.

SIMRAN: Most teenagers think they are invincible, yet King’s students feel compelled to dive deep into this taboo subject. I really want to know why. Let’s hear your interview with David Swick.

ANGELA: What inspired you to write this story about death now?

Well, pre-COVID, death was for most people, um, abstract hypothetical for other people, easy to ignore. Um, and now we’ve had two years of having death score cards on the top fold of major media and masks and lockdowns and the whole rest of it. And we’ve had two years of having our biggest fear death right in our face. And that’s interesting. Um, so when I bumped into, um, the fact that this theology programme existed, I knew that there were programmes like this, but I’d never heard of one of indeed. This is the only one in all of north America that takes students right out of high school. So right away, I thought, who are these people at 18, 19 years old who want to study death and why do they wanna do that? And how does that affect them? And I thought maybe The Walrus audience would want to know about it.
It is the only degree program in Canada or the United States that takes students out of high school. All the other ones are masters program. Um, and a lot of the way that theology death and dying is taught in a lot of places. It is, uh, very closely attack to nursing or to other kinds of medical, uh, endeavours. So here the fact that it is a, um, a programme started with one course in the mid seventies, a local doctor in London, Ontario, uh, pitched the, to the school and they, they picked him up on it. Um, and it grew more wanted more students, um, to the point where I think it was 20 years or so ago. Um, the university actually made it into a full degree granting department. And this past year, um, there were some 560 students taking different courses is astounding.

How does one grade a course on death?

Yeah, I asked the, uh, the same question. Uh, it turns out it’s actually quite, uh, rigorous. There are, uh, textbooks. Um, there are very serious marking rubrics. There is an academic rigour to this program. Um, there is also though a deeply heartfelt side. Um, students need to bring their full humanity if they want to do this delicate work well, if they want to, a lot of these students go on to working in hospices or with, um, um, people in hospitals and, um, funeral homes and other kinds of things. Um, and so there is a lot of talking and some of the, some of the classes, um, in this program, actually, there are Kleenex boxes set up around the room because stuff’s gonna come up. This isn’t like most other university programs that yes, academic rigour. You need to have the historical understanding and all of the facts of what these medicines do and all this kind of stuff, but you also need to have developed your humanity. And that, um, I thought was fascinating. And as I talked to more and more students and graduates, the more I could see that playing out that there, these people had something that most of us don’t have.

So two things come to mind when you say that, first of all, I feel like everyone could use this course. Like everyone could use a little more humanity in, in what they’re learning. And secondly, why isn’t this a required course for everyone who deals with health?

Yeah, well, a lot of, um, the students who take, um, courses from the theology department, uh, are indeed nurses and other people involved with other programs who want some, this, a franker understanding of death and dying, then maybe they can, they can get elsewhere. Um, but you raise a good point. Um, yeah, I mean the, um, in the piece I mentioned that, um, the Russian composer, Shostakovich he said that, um, people, uh, face death, if people talked about death a little more and came to accept that this is a real thing, he said we would all make fewer foolish mistakes.
And I think, I think he’s probably right. You know, death is, I’ve never been a, um, you know, I, um, I’ve never gone sort of this deep into thinking about a lot of these things before writing this article. And, um, I think he’s right. And as a society, we do so many things so well, and we become a lot more compassionate in a whole bunch of ways in the last 30 or 40 years. Terrific. The death for most of us, for most of our families even remains taboo. And that means we continue to make foolish mistakes as a society.

My family doesn’t talk about death or what happens after or wills. And this has caused all kinds of stress in families where people hide things and you find out after the fact it’s ridiculous, it’s completely nuts. Um, what is it about this that you think like, do you think culturally, this is, uh, something that could help have these conversations?

Yeah. I think I live next door to your family. Uh, yeah, my family did not talk about, uh, death, uh, or a lot of other things. It just didn’t didn’t uh, happen mean in lots, lots of ways, you know, wonderful family. But as, and a lot of us would say something like that about our, these, um, here, there’s an interesting stat that did not make, uh, the article, which is that, um, about, um, 75% of Canadians want to die at home. And the percentage that does is less than 20%. So there’s this huge gap, you know, when you think of, um, your grandmother or you think of people in old folks homes, you think of people who are at a time of life when they are starting to turn their thoughts to what can I have control over what is important to me? I wanna die at home and we fail forfeits of those people. There’s something wrong with that. And, and I think it’s in large measure because we don’t talk about death as a society or in our families. And if we did, we would you’d see those numbers change. We would act out more compassion.

This line really struck me in your story. It says she and other students have entered the phonology programme and graduated as stronger happier people. Can you talk about the lasting effects on the students who go through this programme?

Yeah. Um, you know, years ago I did my, my masters on, uh, the first hospice in the us. And, um, and so there, I met all kinds of people. Um, good created this and we’re now working, um, not just in Connecticut and New York, but I also went over to England and got to hang around one of the oldest hospices in the UK. And here’s the thing, almost everyone I have met in the field of death and dying, um, has faced ancient, deep fear to some serious degree. They come to some terms with death and not to obsess about it, but just to be aware, just to be aware, Hey, life is finite life ends, right? Doesn’t always look away from this. I’m just gonna look at this again. Life ends. What does this mean? What do I want, how should I change things? And this, um, perhaps ironically gives these people a certain solidity that you don’t see a in, in most other people.
And so even the, um, the graduates I talked to, um, um, from this Kings programme, you know, who are 23 years old, they, um, have a, I mean, in some ways they’re like any and 22 year old, you know, they’re smart and they’re funny and they like to laugh and whatever, but there’s also a, um, not exactly sure if gravitas is the right word. There is awareness, they’re grounded. Yeah. An awareness they’re grounded in something else. They’ve, they’ve been through the fire of this deep fear or they’re they’re um, on the way doing that. And that is given them a Ballas of sanity that is most impressive. And I’m sure I drove the, uh, the director and some of the teachers and a lot of the students are grads, um, you know, crazy from phoning back and phoning back and phoning back. And partly, I think I was just, um, verifying for myself, oh, these people are as solid and deep as they first appear and maybe more so it was most impressive, impressive crowd.

Has it made you think about your own history and your own family?

You know, my father died, uh, a dozen years ago in a hospital. Didn’t want to be in a hospital. Um, he’d been a sailor as a young man. And at one point when everyone, including he knew that he was in his final two or three days, um, I, I had a brilliant idea. I said, I ran out to one of the nurses and I said, Hey, great idea. If we unplug him from some of these things and move his bed, he can see the ocean from his hospital bed. And it went through various layers of bureaucracy and was not allowed because it was against protocol. And I thought there’s something wrong with our society that this would happen. And as a common story, lots of Canadian families could tell you stuff like this.
My great aunt June, who’s a wonderful woman, so bright and sparky. Um, she perhaps is the only person I’ve met, certainly in my family and friends who, um, professed, no fear of death whatsoever. And aunt June always said, death is like the prize at the end of the party. Finally, the big mystery answered and you get to like take it and wander off. And I thought that was just a beautiful, beautiful way of looking at it. I haven’t quite achieved that myself, but something to aspire to.

SIMRAN: Let’s find out what David is watching right now:

DAVID SWICK: The answer, what I’ve been to my astonishment, um, cuz I tend to, you know, I have favourite French filmmakers and whatever. Um, I’ve been, um, gorging on, uh, the American show, the office just because I needed something like, yeah, I rarely have gone to distraction at the end of the day, but it’s actually been kind of a heavy winter and uh, I just needed some laughs and that’s what I’ve been doing,


Thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of the Deep Dive. It was produced by myself, and Simran Singh and I edited this episode with a little help from Ally Baker and Jason Herterich who found me some wicked stings.

Thanks so much to David Swick for joining us this week.

Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is This Podcast Theme by Inplus Music. Additional music is Stay Cool by Loops Lab, Podcast Intro by Inplus Music, “Young Ballad” by SergeQuadrado; “Screen Saver” and “Comfortable Mystery” by Kevin MacLeod.

Screen Saver by Kevin MacLeod

Comfortable Mystery by Kevin MacLeod

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See you next week when we take our next deep dive.

The Walrus Staff