Students treat project about death as a way to embrace life

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2011 - 9:34 PM

Twice a year, journalism students at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication create a single-issue magazine to showcase their skills as writers, editors, photographers and web designers. It's also an opportunity for outsiders to learn what's top-of-mind among a sampling of college students about to graduate.

It's safe to say that the theme of the Spring 2011 issue, out this week, made for some head spinning among the students' advisers: Death.

"Flatline" magazine (www.tiny.cc/t2nj5), all 44 cleanly designed pages, is chock full of our culture's least favorite topic. Inside the cover -- which features a medical face shield to guard against "splashing liquids" -- are articles on organ donation, suicide, and interviews with mortuary science students and an artist who uses animal carcasses to create art. There's a trend piece on the funeral industry's shift to larger caskets to bury our increasingly supersized loved ones.

There's levity, too, such as pieces on the most expensive funerals ever (Alexander the Great trumps Ronald Reagan), myths concerning death (cell phones won't blow up your gas pump), and pop culture's fascination with zombies.

Mostly, Flatline is wise and brave, and it made the students' advisers proud.

"They did a fabulous job," said Jeanne Schacht, a U of M College of Design staff member, who team-teaches the class with journalist and adjunct instructor Elizabeth Larsen. "At one point, Elizabeth and I just sat back and read the stories. The maturity of this group is amazing."

The teachers weren't always on board. They've mid-wived magazines about the food industry, transportation, music, and people who live unusual lives, such as a guy who lives in a cave. But death and dying?

"We were kind of going, huh? Are you sure you want to spend a whole semester working on something depressing?" said Schacht, who has worked with magazine students, mostly seniors, for about nine years.

"But it wasn't depressing. It was a catharsis. Everyone had a story."

Jill Hafner's story, "Tears and Ink," was told through photographs shot by journalism student Bre McGee. Hafner's mother died in 2006 following a stroke. To remember her, Hafner chose to use her own body "as a canvas," with tattoos of and about her mother on her neck, back and rib cage, the latter a highly painful area to be tattooed.

Another student wrote a first-person essay about his long struggle with depression, but was adamant that suicide is not the answer. "No matter how much I may have wanted to," he wrote, "I couldn't condemn the people I love and who care about me to a life sentence of pain, suffering, and self-loathing. Parents should never have to bury their children."

Co-managing editor Hebba Aburia wrote a moving piece about the importance of making amends before it's too late. Priscilla Lundquist profiled Serenity Ward, an 18-year-old who already has written her eulogy so that she may lead a "more intentional" life going forward.

Flatline (subtitled Memento Mori, "remember your mortality,") sprang from a brainstorming session in January. Ideas such as green living and technology got axed -- too ordinary. Then somebody brought up 2012, which some believe will see the end of the world, and asked: If that were true, what would you do?

Editor-in-Chief Patrick Berner loved the "challenge" of it. The 25 students had about 15 weeks to organize themselves into roles, create, report and edit, then produce the magazine for print and online. About 1,250 copies of Flatline are being distributed at the university and to various mortuary science schools. The project is funded by the Milton L. Kaplan Memorial Fund, a permanent endowment supporting magazine editing and production.

Turns out the lessons learned from Flatline went well beyond magazine production. "It really makes me want to take chances," said art director Blake Dahmen. "I've always wanted to leave Minnesota. Reading some of those articles made me want to actively pursue it. Did I actually chase my dreams, or just take the easy path through life?"

Web director and photographer Mandy Majorowicz agreed. "I don't like being scared of things," said Majorowicz, who will head to Berlin, Germany, for a summer journalism internship. "I want to be knowledgeable. Once you prepare yourself, and come to terms with dying, you'll live life so much more fully than before."

Life imitated art for assistant art director Lauren Huff. She found out just weeks ago that her uncle has an inoperable brain tumor. She wrote a thank-you note to Larsen and Schacht, "for letting us cover this subject. The magazine turned into a way for me to talk about death in a different way."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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