When Terri Carter dies, she wants to be dressed in a white robe and placed in a fancy casket without being embalmed.And if she really could have her way, she would be carried through town in a limousine and buried in a mausoeleum. "That to me would really be 'resting in peace,'" said the 18-year-old, rolling her eyes dreamily.
In the past few weeks, Terri and her classmates at the District of Columbia's School Without Walls have been thinking baout their own deaths. They've even brought up the subject at home at the dinner table - in some cases drawing bewildered looks from their parents.
They've talked with elderly persons about how they feel about growing old and their approaching deaths. They've heard a woman describe her attempt at suicide, visited a crematory, a funeral home, a cemetery, and touched a dead body. One assignment was to ask their own parents how they would like their bodies disposed of at death.
All this is part of an experimental high-school "death education" course, something the Rev. William Wndt, an Episcopal priest who teaches the class, advocates as necessary to developing a "philosophy of living."
"The purpose is to generate real concern for our lives together now while we have lots of time, to have a full realization that we're going to die and hopefully, to put our lives together in some meaningful way," Wendt said. "Unfortunately, death and dying has been a taboo subject for younger people."
Wendt, who is taking a year's sabbatical from St. Stephen and the Incarnation parish in Northwest Washington to study death and dying, is venturing into new territory by teaching death educatin at the secondary level. His class is the only formal death education program in local high schools.
While more than 1,100 courses in death and dying have been formed in colleges and adult education programs around the nation in recent years, the value of death education for younger persons is more debatable among educators.
Dr. James T. Guines, assistant superintendent for instruction for the D.C. public schools, said he personally favors death education studies and intends to review Wendt's pilot program seriously. However, he noted, with the stress on basic educational skills, implementing such a class is a fairly low priority and if approved, death education probably would not be part of the local public school curriculum for at least two or three years.
Health educators in Virginia and Maryland schools agree. "It's a modern trend, there's no question about that," said William Blair of Alexandria public schools, "but it would be considered sort of a frill."
Some teachers say they fear the battles over the propriety of offering sex education at school could be reenacted if death - still a controversial theme - were taught.
In Wendt's class, funeral-planning was just one assignment to his 15 students. He asked them to portray their funerals in pictures. Denise Russo, 17, drew a funnel carrying her to the sky. "I'll have wings to show I'm free," she said.
Bridget Wieghart, 15, painted with watercolor the location where she wants her ashes thrown following cremation. "I didn't draw an afterlife because I don't know what that means," she explained.
Torie Belle prefers a traditional funeral with all her friends present. "I want a movie shown of me as I was. I don't want people moanin' and cryin'. It would be more gladness than sad because they would be saying 'I guess she did live a good life.'"
When Kathryn Monahan, 17, raised the subject of her death at home, she said she was certain her father "didn't really hear what I was saying. Are a lot of people your age afraid to talk about it?" she asked Wendt during one class.
Perhaps the most disturbing experiences for the students revolved around the visits to the funeral home and cemetery.
"The crematory was kind of a shock," said Kathryn Monahan. "I thought the bones turned into ashes, but you could really see the skeleton." Later, after she saw an embalmed body in a funeral home she was more disgusted. "It seems like a waste of the body, cutting it up for no reason, cutting the jugular vein to extract the fluids and staling the mouth shut. I'd like to be cremated."
When Bridget Wieghart touched a corpse at the funeral home, she was initially "gorssed out," afterwards, however, she was glad she had done it."When I touched her, I knew there was no person left there. I had been scared that I would be able to feel once I was dead."
Michael Feaster was surprised the corpse hads the color "of a chicken." "I didn't know people could feel so cold and be so pale," he said.
Terri Carter confessed she couldn't bring herself to touch the dead woman. "I felt really sad when I saw her." she said.
These reactions, Wendt explained halp sharpen students' concerns about living. "They talk about their life styles" from ethical issues and notions of suicide, to consumer issues, such as ways their bodies will be disposed, he said.
"There is no mask involved, no charade," the minister added. "These young people also live in a world in which traumatic death (like war) could be visited on them."
"It has affected our generation," said Kristin Knauth. "I have a much smaller sphere of security, a much more fragile sense of security than my mother does."
Some of their friends label the class as "weird," and Carter's mother complains that she should be studying "something important, like Shakespeare," instead.
Wendt's students disagree. "It make you live your life more fully," Feaster remarked. "And when death comes, you'll be better prepared.