The first chapter is entitled "The Curriculum". The author relates how "the last class of (his) old professor's life takes place once a week in his house", with the author as the only student. The class meets on Tuesdays, and the subject is "The Meaning of Life". There are no grades given, but the student is expected to respond to questions and pose some as well. In lieu of a final, the student is expected to write a long paper, which is this book. Instead of graduation, there will be a funeral.
Morrie Schwartz had been the author's favorite professor at Brandeis University a little more than fifteen years earlier. When the author introduces Morrie to his parents at that graduation, Morrie tells them their son is "one of the good ones". He asks the author to "stay in touch", and when he leaves, Morrie is crying.
In the second chapter, "The Syllabus", the author says that Morrie received "his death sentence...in the summer of 1994". Morrie had known something was wrong for awhile. First, he had had to give up dancing, then he developed asthma, and finally he began to have trouble walking. The doctors' diagnosis was ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a terminal disease of the neurological system.
Soon, Morrie must give up driving, and use a cane. He teaches his last college course. The doctors guess that "he (has) two years left, (but) Morrie (knows) it is less". He resolves to make the best of the time he has left, and decides to "make death his final project". He "would walk that final bridge between life and death, and narrate the trip".
When Morrie has deteriorated to the point to where he must use a wheelchair, a good friend of his dies. At the funeral, Morrie realizes that it is a waste that "all those people (say) all those wonderful things" at a funeral, and the deceased never gets to hear them. With this in mind, he arranges a "living funeral" for himself.
The focus shifts to the author in the next chapter, entitled "The Student". After graduation, the author had gone to New York City, to become a famous musician. His dream never materializes, and when a favorite uncle dies of pancreatic cancer at age forty-four, the author, feeling that he is wasting his time, he goes back to school and begins working as a sports writer. He is highly successful in this field, gets married, and "burie(s) (him)self in accomplishments...believ(ing) he (can) control things, (he tries to) squeeze in every last piece of happiness before (he)...die(s)". He remembers Morrie, but has not kept in touch, and things might have continued like this, except for something he hears on TV late one night.