DEATH, Tammy Jones says, is omnipresent in her life. It is in her music, her conversation, the books she reads, the television she watches, the thoughts she takes home each evening.
And now, death is in her schooling. Tammy Jones, a senior at La Reine High School in Suitland, is one of hundreds of Washington-area parochial school students who have signed up for courses in Death and Dying.
Such courses are now among the most popular electives at Catholic high schools, said Daniel Curtin, secretary for education of the Archdiocese of Washington. And the subject is spreading to earlier levels of education: "More and more of the suicides and other problems kids are having are at younger ages, so the elementary schools are looking at the subject too," said Eileen Marx, spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
"Death is really there for us," Jones said recently in Sister Lynn Rachelle's Death and Dying course. "We can get into it. Our music talks about death all the time. Kids go to Georgetown and wear black and make-up that makes them look pale, like they're dead. Nothing lasts forever except death. We're comfortable with it."
While Jones was clearly not alone in her fascination with death, many of her classmates recoiled at her vivid embrace of something they feared.
"I don't hear that in the music I listen to," said Linda Fletcher. "I don't hear it in soul and rhythm and blues. I don't hear a lot about death anywhere."
Courses on death deal with topical issues such as euthanasia, capital punishment, terrorism and nuclear war. But the peak of student interest comes when the discussion turns to teen suicide, abortion and losing close friends -- issues of increasingly immediate importance.
"You'd be surprised how much experience most adolescents have already had with death," Rachelle said. "It's so important to address it because many times parents either deny death or try to shield the children. They need to know that death is a part of life. Not to scare them, but to let them know it's a natural part of living."
Using textbooks specifically designed for such courses, along with works on grief and dying by psychologist Elisabeth Ku bler-Ross, Death and Dying courses -- sometimes called Life and Death -- have gained popularity as religion electives in Catholic schools around the country.
The courses have not spread to public schools. While most school systems send social workers to schools where a student has committed suicide or died in a car crash, there are few ongoing efforts to deal with death in public schools, officials of several area systems said.
That stems in part from a traditional reluctance to deal with issues of values and morality in public schools. Some years ago, an English seminar arranged thematically around works on death drew parent criticism and was dropped, said Fairfax County schools spokeswoman Dolores Bohen.
Catholic schools, which require religion classes at every grade level, have used Death and Dying courses both to discuss doctrine and to delve into students' worries.
AT LA REINE, an all-girls school serving Prince George's County and the District, a class of 31 juniors and seniors includes one girl whose little sister was murdered, two who recently suffered the death of a parent, one who experienced the death of five friends in a short time and several students who had friends who committed suicide or died in car crashes.
So when Rachelle leads a discussion of grieving rituals -- how, for example, funerals and wakes ease pain and channel emotions -- the students participate, eagerly telling stories of relatives and friends who have died, then, with more hesitation, disclosing their fears about friends who seem suicidal.
And when Alicia Urban, a lay religion teacher at Immaculata High School in Rockville, asked her senior seminar to recall their feelings at funerals, the students-nearly all of whom had been to funerals of both elderly relatives and peers -- revealed private doubts about whether their reactions to death were "right."
"I was just there," Greta Dowling said of a funeral she attended. "They performed the service and I left. I don't know how I'm supposed to react at a funeral, but I don't think I'm doing it the right way."
Urban assured the student that there is no correct response to death; to prove the point, she canvassed the room, listening to and accepting a broad range of reactions. The answers also varied immensely when Urban asked the class to speculate how they would feel if they were told they had perhaps a week to live.
"What would you want to do to prepare for the end of your life?" the teacher asked. "Who would you want to see or talk to?"
Seeing some students struggling with the assignment, Urban said, "This doesn't have to all be somber."
"Well, I mean . . .," Beth Ghetti said, rolling her eyes. After all, this was death they were talking about.
After their initial hesitation, however, the students produced detailed portraits of their own final days, right down to the tunes they wanted played at their funerals, the last stores they wanted to shop at and the friends they hoped to see. They spoke of crying and traveling to exotic places, of going to confession and telling friends of their secret love.
Teaching a Death and Dying course is not maudlin, but "enlightening and freeing," Rachelle said. "The students are searching for answers. It's beautifully exciting."
Rachelle opens class with a prayer "for all the people who are ill and all the people who will be dying on this day." The girls say Amen and cross themselves. After 40 minutes of talk about death, they burst into the busy hallway, blending once more into the chaos of high school.
Is their daily time with death a reflective respite or a glorification of death? Urban recalled a principal who spoke of Death and Dying courses as "Doom and Gloom 101."
"I can't see it as an entire course," said Urban, who includes death issues in a broader course on social justice. "I'd rather stress life. The students can get paralyzed in these discussions, especially when we talk about nuclear holocaust. That shakes them. But particularly in this environment, where they've been almost cuddled for years, they need to hear it, to get ready for the wider world."
In class, Rachelle told the girls about a funeral she attended. She described in detail the dead woman's final days, when her four daughters crawled onto their mother's bed to hold her in her last moments. And the teacher spoke dreamily of the funeral: "Girls, it was so powerful you could almost hear a pin drop." The classroom was so quiet you could hear the teacher speaking in the next room.
"Maybe we don't realize we are glorifying it," Rachelle said later. "But it has to be taught. Our culture doesn't help. We cosmeticize everything. We say 'He's passed away' or 'He looks like he's sleeping.' "
"It's not a fascination with death, but a questioning and concern," Urban said. "Some students might get really engrossed in death, but in a questioning way. They're asking why and what happens?" ::
Marc Fisher writes about education for the Metropolitan section of The Washington Post.