Past Features

May 19, 2008 (Vol. 7, No. 9)

Death and Dying Class Visits Woodlawn Cemetery

Stuart Waldman and His Class
Stuart Waldman and his "Death and Dying" class visit the tomb of Celia Cruz.

As part of Stuart Waldman's course on Death and Dying, students visited Woodlawn Cemetery this July for a private guided tour.

"There's a great deal of American history at Woodlawn Cemetery," Waldman said. "We saw the graves of some famous people and some not so famous. It was an experience in cultural diversity, laws, customs and rules."

According to Waldman, the cemetery is the second oldest in New York City, after Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It was created after laws were passed that no longer allowed burials in Manhattan. As there were no bridges to transport coffins to other parts of the region, relatives of the deceased would take the coffins on trains and lay them to rest in the cemetery near the Bronx-Yonkers border.

Woodlawn is the final resting place for leaders of industry, famous athletes, politicians, artists, writers and musicians. These include women's suffrage pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, composer Irving Berlin, and musicians Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Celia Cruz.

"A cemetery is a way of remembering people and history," Waldman said. "Death is in our culture and in our reality."

The course on Death and Dying provides education for both undergraduate and graduate students in the Health Education field who at some point in their careers will have to work with people who are dying as well as people who are experiencing the death of someone close.

The course covers all aspects of death, including art, work, music, hospice care, legal issues such as the death penalty and abortion and funerals. Students write their own obituaries and there is a funeral on the final day of class.

Waldman emphasized the need for firsthand information in such a dynamic class, citing that since death is an aspect that everyone will eventually deal with, there are plenty of examples outside of a textbook through which to learn.

The students were not completely comfortable with the thought of visiting a cemetery at first. "At first there was panic," Waldman said. "But we all went together, myself included, and this sense of intimacy made the students feel a bit more comfortable. They had a great time."