BYU should do more to memorialize students, survivors say

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BYU students sing hymns outside the Tanner Building in December 2018 following the death of one of their peers. Survivors of BYU students who have passed away wish the university would do more to memorialize its students. (Ty Mullen)

When BYU student Ashlyn Hanzon died in a car crash in October 2021, her professors Mat Duerden and Jamin Rowan mulled over the best way to respond. Duerden and Rowan directed a study abroad trip to the London Centre in early 2020 in which Hanzon was a participant. The professors wanted to find the best way to support the student’s family and other students involved in the study abroad.

“We felt we all needed a way to honor Ashlyn and show support to her family,” Duerden told The Daily Universe via email. The professors decided to hold an informal memorial gathering for other students who were with Hanzon on the study abroad trip.

Hanzon was a unique member of BYU’s student community, but her professors’ uncertainty at how to respond to her death was nothing new. Survivors of students who die while attending the university can be left wanting more, despite BYU’s efforts to support them. Looking at what other colleges do to honor students and suggestions from a suicide prevention specialist about the right way to hold memorials provide some insights. 

Rowan said his experience of losing his mother to bile-duct cancer shaped the way he responded to Hanzon’s death. After his mother’s death, Rowan wanted to collect as many stories as possible from people who knew and loved her. 

He wanted to do the same for Hanzon’s family.

“I want Ashlyn’s family to know that there are other people who knew and loved their daughter and sister, and who will continue to be inspired by her even though she is no longer here,” Rowan said. During their vigil, he directed the students from the study abroad in capturing stories of Hanzon’s life to share with her family. 

Rowan expressed gratitude that the Kennedy Center and BYU Abroad programs have both honored Hanzon on their Instagram accounts following her death. 

“I have been so touched by their posts that honor Ashlyn as an explorer and storyteller,” Rowan said. He hopes BYU will find ways to encourage other programs and departments on campus to similarly memorialize students who pass away.

BYU student Joseph Spencer died in a car accident on 900 North in Provo in March 2021. His friends contacted the BYU administration after Spencer’s death, hoping they would make a statement on social media or organize a memorial to honor Spencer’s memory.

That never happened. 

“I even called the administration to see if anything was being organized and never got called back or had anyone willing to help make this happen,” Spencer’s friend Alex Atkinson told The Daily Universe over FaceBook Messenger.

Instead, Atkinson, 23, and friends used Twitter to share positive memories about Spencer. They created a small vigil outside the Taco Bell where the accident happened. His family organized a funeral. People who knew Spencer donated money to the family’s Venmo to pay their respects. 

“All in all, we just wish BYU made more of an effort to help bring awareness to this loss and helped set up a memorial to honor our friend Joe,” Atkinson said. “Every loss from the BYU school and that community deserves to be recognized and memorialized.” 

Duerden and Rowan also expressed hopes that BYU will have greater involvement in memorializing students going forward.

Rowan said the only way he heard about Hanzon’s death was because she was on his payroll as a student employee; he received no notifications from the university that his former student had passed away.

“If Ashlyn was not on my payroll, I would not have known from BYU that she had passed away,” Rowan said. “I would want to know if one of my students died while still attending BYU.”

Duerden was a graduate student at Texas A&M and was impressed by their traditions revolving around student deaths. There, flags on campus are flown at half-staff on the first Tuesday of the month after a student’s death in a ceremony called “Silver Taps.” The name, class and major of each deceased student are put on cards at the base of the flagpole in the center of campus. Students are encouraged to write letters throughout the day to their fallen peer’s family. Hymns are also played on the bell tower, students and families gather on campus and the Ross Volunteer Company marches into the center of campus to fire a salute and play a rendition of “Taps.”

Similarly, the University of Utah hosts a multi-faith student memorial service every spring to honor students who died during the past school year. 

“The service includes words from university administrators, the chaplain of the university hospital, readings from a variety of faiths and a reciting of the students’ names,” the university’s Dean of Students website says.

Duerden said he wants BYU to follow suit. 

“I would like to see BYU do more, especially to provide students the opportunity to mourn for and honor those who pass away as well as know how to reach out and support families who have been impacted,” Duerden said.

Continuing his love for collecting stories of the deceased, Rowan wishes BYU would play a bigger role in gathering stories of students who die while attending the university.

“BYU could easily reach out to each of the student’s professors and invite them to share a story or memory about that student while they were enrolled in their class,” Rowan said. “BYU could also invite each professor to extend the same invitation to the deceased student’s classmates. BYU could then gather those stories and share them with the student’s family.”

Names of BYU alumni who die are included in the quarterly published Y Magazine. University Police Lt. Wade Raab suggested a list also be included for students, either in Y Magazine or in The Daily Universe, or even an obituary honoring each student’s life.

Current BYU policies

While survivors have much they’d still like to change, BYU already has a steadfast process in place for honoring its deceased students focused on giving privacy and support to each student’s family. Sarah Westerberg is the Associate Student Life Vice President and Dean of Students at BYU. She told The Daily Universe that when a student passes away, BYU sends a floral arrangement, typically in the shape of a Y, to the funeral services.

Westerberg also said condolences are sent from all levels of faculty and administration. Based on how close the deceased student is to graduation, the university may also award them a posthumous degree.

Vigils in the past have mostly been spontaneously organized by students, Westerburg said. Otherwise memorials are coordinated by campus departments or ecclesiastical leaders, so they typically happen off-campus with smaller groups.

“Priority is given to the privacy of the family,” Westerburg said. “We respond on an individual basis to each situation in a private and respectful manner.”

Administration has not made any move toward changing their policies regarding student deaths, Westerburg said.

Are memorials a good idea?

As options are discussed for changing the way BYU memorializes its deceased students, questions arise about what the most positive way might be to honor each of them. Gregory Hudnall is a leading expert in suicide prevention in Provo who works with Hope Squads in local schools. Hudnall told The Daily Universe in a phone interview that schools need to be careful about how they honor students who die because improperly arranged memorials can be triggers for students, specifically those struggling with mental health issues.

“I advise schools not to do a memorial unless you treat all students the same way,” Hudnall said. “You sometimes see a huge memorial for a student who dies of cancer or an athlete who dies in a car crash, but someone with mental illness doesn’t get the same level of attention. The lack of consistency makes it very difficult.”

Hudnall encourages administrators to do all they can to remember individuals in a positive light. He says to focus on the accomplishments of the young people rather than focusing on how they died.

“The balance between sensationalizing and memorializing is difficult,” Hudnall said. “What may be comforting to some students may be upsetting for others.”

Hudnall often asks peers to write down positive memories with the deceased student he can then share with their family, supporting Rowan’s desire for BYU to collect stories of those who die while attending the university. Hudnall also encourages students to focus on doing community service in their memory and raising money to support the family, as was done in the wake of the October 2021 accidental deaths of BYU students Jacob West and Hailee York.

“You need to compassionately honor students while still returning focus in classrooms,” Hudnall said. “Check on students and ask what they need.”

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