Many came simply because they knew Leviton’s reputation as a phenomenal professor. In the American “death-denying culture,” as Leviton once called it, his classroom was one place to look for answers about the end of life.
One of the lessons he taught his students was about fear. While they might fear how they would die, he sometimes said — in a fire, in war, of a painful disease — they shouldn’t fear death. The process of dying may be wrenching for you and the people who love you, but the end itself, as one former student put it, is “simple and concrete.”
And he taught that lesson not just in a classroom, but, eventually, through his own example.
Leviton’s death at age 80 came May 13, at his home in Adelphi, after three years of esophageal cancer. Though he tried chemotherapy and radiation, said his wife, Susan Leviton, at a certain point, he was no longer a sick man, but a dying one.
He tried to prepare his wife, his two children, his friends and even himself for the loss. In e-mails to those closest to him, he did what he had counseled his students to do when their own time came: He reckoned with his life, including his regrets, and said goodbye.
Leviton convened discussion groups at his home every few months to talk about death, and about life. The friends and former students who attended the meetings compare the experience to “Tuesdays With Morrie,” writer Mitch Albom’s book about his visits with a beloved former professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Leviton was a teacher “absolutely to the end,” said Linda Campanelli, a former student who went to the meetings. Another of his lessons, she said, is that “loss is germane to every day of our lives.”
“Whether we’re shedding skin cells ... or whether we lose something of great value,” she said, the study of death prepares a person for much more.
Leviton came to the University of Maryland faculty in the late 1960s as a health education professor and soon joined a movement in the United States to make “thanatology,” the study of death, part of university education. In 1973,Time magazine reported that about 70 American colleges and schools offered courses on the subject.
He was a big man with a bigger voice. Leviton loved the opera — it matched his intensity. Like opera star Luciano Pavarotti, he carried a handkerchief. He often became so animated during his lectures that he had to dry the sweat from his brow and bald head.
Nothing was untouchable. Sometimes, Campanelli recalled, Leviton walked around campus wearing an orange T-shirt that read, “Sex and death, death and sex: Nothing is taboo.”