Students taking the introductory course in thanatology at King’s University College are asked to spend a couple of hours in a cemetery to look around and reflect on things. “I’m always interested in who they take with them,” says Darcy Harris, coordinator of the thanatology program. “Often it’s a family member – very few go unaccompanied. It becomes a real opening point to have a dialogue with their family about death and about their wishes.”
King’s, affiliated with Western University, is the only school in Canada to offer an undergraduate degree program in thanatology. “We researched this issue last year, and found that while many universities and community colleges offer courses in areas related to death, dying or bereavement, there were no other formal university-level programs of study in the area,” says Dr. Harris.
Thanatology literally means the study of death, but the program is much broader than that, she says. “While we do have courses on topical issues related to palliative care, death and grief, we also explore the experience of everyday losses and how we adapt to change and transition in various aspects of life. Many of our students tell us that the study of thanatology is really the study of how to live more fully.”
The program started with a single course on death and dying, which morphed into a certificate in grieving studies in 1994. That in turn became a minor in thanatology in 2006, with a major added in 2008 and an honours specialization approved in principle. “It’s ready to go. We’re just dealing with the staffing issues now.” Dr. Harris was one of the first graduates of the certificate program in 1996 and began teaching there two years later.
There are about 100 students currently taking either a minor or major in thanatology. “The classes fill up very, very quickly. We usually have waiting lists.” Many of the students, upon finishing, go on to clinical-based graduate programs, while others find careers coordinating grief-support programs or working in places such as funeral homes or long-term care facilities.
And yes, Dr. Harris is a huge fan of the old HBO TV series Six Feet Under. “We actually have copies of the whole series in our library. I grieved when it finished.”