U-Md. public health professor Daniel Leviton dies at 80

June 2, 2011

Daniel Leviton, 80, a University of Maryland public health professor whose popular course “Death Education” attracted the grieving seeking catharsis, the curious seeking clarity and, sometimes, the suicidal seeking help, died May 13 of esophageal cancer at his home in Adelphi.

A burly six-footer, with a clean-shaven head and handlebar moustache, Dr. Leviton taught at U-Md. from 1967 to 2006. His “Death Education” class was one of the most popular electives, attracting more than 200 students a semester and turning away as many.

Shunning the maudlin, Dr. Leviton explored attitudes toward death: what we think we know about dying, the process of bereavement, and the feelings of grief and fear often associated with death.

“We live in a death-denying culture,” Dr. Leviton once told The Washington Post. “Death education forces us to face the fact that death is always a possibility.”

He spoke openly about suicide, noting that students often sought him because they were contemplating taking their own life. He advised them to seek more expert help.

Daniel Leviton was born Feb. 9, 1931, in Washington, and his father was a chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He graduated from McKinley Technical High School in 1948 and obtained a bachelor’s degree in physical education from George Washington University in 1953. Three years later, he received a master’s in physical education from Springfield College in Massachusetts.

He served in the Army for two years and spent his early career as a Capitol Hill staffer and executive assistant to the chief psychiatrist of the Peace Corps. In 1967, he received a doctorate in physical education from U-Md.

Dr. Leviton’s interest in the study of death was propelled by the 1959 book “The Meaning of Death,” a compilation of essays edited by Herman Feifel, the founder of modern death psychology.

A fast pitch softball player, Dr. Leviton pitched in Washington area leagues for more than 30 years. In 1983, he was inducted into the Greater Washington Fastpitch Softball Hall of Fame.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Susan Mathews Leviton of Adelphi, and two children, Leslie Leviton of Reston and Matthew Leviton of New York City.

In 2007, when Dr. Leviton received a diagnosis of terminal esophageal cancer, he approached it the way he had taught his students. Matthew Gordon, an American University student filmed a short documentary of Dr. Leviton undergoing treatment.

Gordon, in an interview, said Dr. Leviton often engaged other patients to discuss death. He was, effectively, a counselor and used humor — sometimes quite dark — to provoke others into talking about their feelings.

Despite dedicating his career to the study of death, Dr. Leviton said that it only brought so much comfort when the ultimate moment arose. “There is no solid evidence that death education reduces anxiety about death,” he once said. “Death always comes as a surprise.”