There are many conversations that people are comfortable to talk about. There are those conversations that people shy away from. Today, let’s have a conversation about an uncomfortable topic: dying.
But wait: what is it about dying that makes many of us uncomfortable? Some will argue it’s because we are scared of the unknown. But I am not convinced. Look, no one is uncomfortable guessing who will be the winner of the next Superbowl, who will win the next election, and what is going to happen next in the stock market. And it’s not only about areas that we are familiar with; try talking about UFOs or humans settling on Mars, and you will find an engaging audience.
Dying, however, is still taboo. I wonder if it’s because death feels like the opposite of ourselves. It’s the end of our existence. And since we very much like to exist, speaking about the end doesn’t feel good. Thinking about this topic can also make us question our self-worth: if it’s going to be over at some point, does it even have any value?
In Judaism, death is not viewed as an end. It is not the last stop of the journey, rather one more stop in the journey. According to the Torah, when a person dies, they only change form: instead of a soul-plus-body, they are now soul only. Even after death, neither our identity or our relationships are lost. The soul is very much alive and is still in touch with its loved ones on earth, aware of their pains and rejoicing in their moments of celebrations. This is why in Judaism there are many laws and traditions concerning the afterlife, from the way the body is prepared for burial (the “Tahara” purification process), to the funeral, burial and the grave.
These traditions and laws have a dual purpose. First, they provide the body the dignity it deserves. After all, it was the body that enabled the soul to fulfill so many Mitzvot during its lifetime. Second, they are designed to ease the soul’s pain. Because although the soul enjoys being in heaven, it does mourn the separation from the body. Through these traditions, the soul is being comforted as it embarks on its spiritual journey in heaven.
Thank G-d, more and more Jews are starting to appreciate the beauty in the traditional Jewish custom and choose a Jewish burial over cremation. Recently I was called to Vanderbilt hospital at midnight, to recite prayers and share words of comfort for a victim of a plane accident, whose body was ninety five percent burned. It was an emotional moment for the family, as we were standing around the patient’s bed reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer and sang the Adon Olam. I shared with them about the importance of a proper Jewish burial, and that life goes on despite the separation of the soul in the body. These were the words of comfort they needed to hear that moment.
May G-d bless us all with a long, healthy, meaningful, and impactful life!