Professor takes on a unique class in death issues in memory of his wife.
To understand death is to understand what it is to be human.
"When we speak of death, we speak of the meaning of our lives," says Peter Steinfeld, professor of philosophy and religion at Buena Vista University. "Death defines us as human beings, for it is the boundary between our moving out of existence into the beyond."
Death is a subject close to Steinfeld, who is still grieving for the death of his wife, Laura Lyn Inglis. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer almost a year ago. She died in August 2001.
Before her death, Inglis taught philosophy and religion at BVU as well. She taught her students to challenge societal norms.
"Death and dying is such a taboo subject in our society," Steinfeld said. "It was always Laura's goal, dream and ideal for death to become a topic for conversation and something to be discussed, even long before she was diagnosed with cancer.
"After that she took it on as a project for thinking about... something to reflect on, think about and wonder about."
For many years, Inglis taught a class about death, appropriately titled, "Death and Dying." She asked her students to question the meaning of death in order to understand their own lives.
Now, with the start of the spring semester at BVU, Steinfeld finds himself in that role. He is teaching "Death and Dying" for the first time.
Steinfeld said he was dreading parts of the class before it first met on Tuesday.
"There's so many emotions tied up with it," he said. "It was only five months ago Laura died.
"It's going to be hard, but it's a good thing to teach hard classes."
He decided last spring to teach the course, after Inglis was diagnosed with cancer.
"When Laura did die Jeanne Tinsley and Karen Halbersleben (the school dean and academic dean) supported me if I didn't want to teach it," Steinfeld said. "But I decided I really wanted to go ahead. I thought it was a good way to allow those present to relate to my experience and to speak to them about it.
"I'm glad to do it, though I'm scared," he said.
But the class is much more than just dealing with each person's experiences with death.
"It's not a support group for grieving people, but we want to make it a part of it as well," he said. "It comes from grief and pain that we share, but as we're thinking about academic issues related to death and dying."
He said it is not as difficult as people think to discuss the issue of death.
"There's far more investigation when the issue is as close to our hearts as death is," he said. "People care more when it has that kind of meaning."
The class will explore death from its historical and cultural viewpoints and the social constructs behind it. There will be panel discussions with funeral home operators as well as hospice workers.
Euthanasia and right-to-die issues will be discussed, as well as "megadeath," such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombing of Dresden during World War II and the Holocaust.
"Death affects us in many ways," Steinfeld said. "Mass death has such a dramatic effect on the psyche of our society."
While the class explores these topics, Steinfeld said the class is also an exercise in self-reflection.
"I'm struggling with issues of grieving and death and dying of my own because of Laura," he said. "My experiences I hope create a safe space for people to discuss death and dying."
Inglis tried to do that when she taught the class. She last taught "Death and Dying" in the fall of 2000. It was the same time that long-time BVU security guard Neil Ball was dying of cancer. She had her students interview Ball and talk with him about dying.
Now that Steinfeld is in the classroom, he still feels the presence of Inglis.
"It feels to me that Laura was in the class that first day of teaching it," Steinfeld said. "She was making herself present."
Editor's Note: Pilot staff writer Thomas Klett is a 1999 graduate of BVU and was a student of both Steinfeld and Inglis. He took Inglis' "Death and Dying" class in the spring semester of 1997.