Death and Dying


caregiver holding hand of patient

Course Overview:

Death and Dying, taught by award-winning professor Dr. Deborah Gold, examines multiple perspectives on death and dying in America while acknowledging how various other cultures/religions manage and view the process of death.

Students are exposed to a variety of disciplinary approaches to help better understand the sociocultural experience, the ethical considerations, and the economic and emotional costs of the end of life process. Some of these approaches include:

  • Critical engagement with Kubler-Ross "Stage Theory of Death and Dying"
  • Examination of the financial costs of funerals and medical care provided to both terminal patients as well as seniors approaching the end of life
  • Engagement with ethical issues pertaining to life-sustaining medical treatments, as well as euthanasia and physician assisted suicide
  • Religious and community rituals of death and dying, as well as how the individual psychologically copes with the various stages of mourning

Service-Learning in Death and Dying

Service-learning is a central aspect of the Death and Dying course, allowing students to intimately experience and reflect upon the end of life process in a way that few members of their age group do. Past community partners include:

  • Duke HomeCare & Hospice
  • Durham VA Medical Center
  • Hillcrest Convalescent Center
  • Duke Children's Hospital
  • Grace Healthcare Durham
  • Meals on Wheels
  • Durham Regent Retirement Residence
  • The Forest at Duke Continuing Care Retirement Community
  • Spring Arbor Assisted Living

Not only do students gain valuable insight and real world experience that pertains to coursework, but they also provide service to the Durham community that course partners describe as invaluable. Students are usually paired with one resident or patient at a retirement or medical site, and form a personal relationships: sharing stories, encouraging and helping with physical activities, and providing contact to the world outside of the facility.

Excerpted from a feature in Duke Magazine:  

Not every nineteen-year-old is ready to confront his own mortality. "My estimation is that the students who take this class are the most courageous students on campus," says Deborah Gold, an associate professor of medical sociology. "It is not an easy class to take because of the unavoidable emotional aspects of death or dying."

The course, which Gold offers every fall, draws a diverse group of undergraduates, including would-be doctors, people who hope to manage their fear of death, and students who have recently lost a friend, a family member, or a pet. Gold began teaching the course in the tumultuous fall of 2001. "Class started the last weekend of August, and in eleven days September 11 happened, so I had the material for the whole rest of the semester right there," she says.

"Death and Dying" is a Duke Service-Learning course so it combines readings and research papers with weekly community service. Volunteer assignments are tailored to each student's interests and comfort level with death, and range from retirement homes to the cancer wards at Duke Medical Center. "We try really hard to match the student to a level of readiness," Gold says. "If I have a person who's really afraid of dying, I'm not going to send them to a hospice."

Several years ago, one student witnessed eleven deaths in a single semester, working alongside a hospital chaplain at the medical center. She is now a third-year medical student at Case Western Reserve University and has told Gold that the experience prepared her emotionally for encountering death in medical school.


"College students live in an age-segregated society, protected from the problems that plague the world outside: poverty, homelessness, even death. Service-learning in the Death and Dying course serves two functions. It introduces students to the fact that death is ubiquitous and unpredictable. It also enables them to interact with much older adults or terminally ill children, people who are not part of the normative college campus. It also allows them to take the theories discussed in class and try to determine whether they fit in a real-world situation."

— Dr. Deborah Gold

"For those who may not have experience interacting with the elderly or coping with the death of a loved one, the concepts of the course can be difficult to fully comprehend. Service-learning changes this; it facilitates the learning of the course material by encouraging students to reach outside of their comfort zone and experience the dying process in a more profound way."

— Julia Rhieu, Class of 2014 Placement: Hillcrest Convalescent Center

"I was reminded that everyone converges to this point in the life cycle, but spending time with people who were near the end of life taught me how precious each moment spent with another person is.That's when I learned the most, when I was able to truly able to empathize with my service learning partner."

— Yi Yang, Class of 2012, Placement: Grace Healthcare

About Dr. Gold:

My research has centered on the psychosocial consequences of chronic illness for older adults. Although I have studied breast cancer, syncope, head and neck cancer, Parkinson's disease and Paget's disease of bone, my primary interest and focus has been on osteoporosis and its psychological and social impact on those who suffer from it. 

In particular, my current research focuses on compliance and persistence with osteoporosis medications. One current study focuses on the impact of race/ethnicity on medication decision making. We are trying to determine the relative weight of cost, convenience, dosing interval, efficacy, and safety in making medication decisions and taking medication on a regular basis as prescribed by a health care provider. I am also on the Steering Committees of two major observational studies with different osteoporosis medications. 

Finally, I have worked with voluntary health organizations to translate our research findings into positive real-world outcomes for people with chronic illness. I serve on the Board of Trustees of the National Osteoporosis Foundation and am Chair of its Education Committee. I have also chaired the International Symposium on Osteoporosis (ISO) for the last 8 years.

The biomedical, economic, social, and psychological issues surrounding death and dying in the twenty-first century in America. Religious and cultural perspectives both in the Judeo-Christian ethic and in other religious frameworks. Theories of dying from sociological and social psychological perspectives. Required participation in service-learning.



Curriculum Codes
  • EI
  • SS
Typically Offered
Fall Only