Preparing for Death
Some of the most difficult conversations we will ever have are those with our family and friends about the end of our lives. Sitting and actually articulating our fears, plans, and hopes for our own deaths is challenging, but can also be one of the most profound and connecting moments we can have with those who are closest to us—both to the one who is approaching the end of his or her life, and to those who will survive them.
While I have sat with many people over the years, it wasn’t until I started having these conversations with my own parents that I understood the range and complexity of feelings that these conversations evoke. Often, these deeply emotional heart-to-hearts bring up other unresolved issues, conflicts, and hurts. The ultimate transition is evocative of how families have dealt with other transitions across the life cycles of its members.
I encourage you to speak with your loved ones and to plan. I am available to facilitate these discussions, walking you through the various steps in the process and the decisions to be made. These meetings help us to approach end-of-life topics mindfully, when not overwhelmed by distress or grief. We identify the issues that need to be thought through, such as what life-saving measures we would want our physicians to take when we become ill, and where the burial should take place. We acknowledge the different perspectives that each person brings to this moment. Truly listening to each other helps families and friends process these complexities, moving them toward compromise when appropriate.
While decision-making and logistics are part of the end-of-life planning process, I have found that the opportunity to transmit our deeper values and wisdom to the next generation has become the most meaningful part of this experience. Writing an ethical will or a letter to our descendants enables us to mold our legacy, letting us be known and remembered by future generations. I highly recommend the excellent book, Forever Letters, written by my colleague, Rabbi Elana Zaiman, to provide you with guidance in this area. Emunah member Bob Russman-Halperin’s classes on this topic are another excellent resource.
Another topic to explore with your family and loved ones is the area of Jewish biomedical ethics, for the Jewish tradition offers us deep wisdom and guidance in making difficult decisions related to end-of-life care. Rabbi Fel and I are here to answer your questions related to traditional Jewish approaches and The Rabbinical Assembly’s website offers numerous articles about Jewish approaches to medical questions and interventions. Included among these are complicated topics such as: what type of care can be refused and at what point, and the absolute necessity of being an organ donor. (Make sure you are!)
Although many of us find it culturally challenging to directly address the topic of dying, palliative care can make the transition from life to our final breath more comfortable and peaceful. Unfortunately, all too many people engage hospice services too late, causing unnecessary distress. Jewish hospice care services can be brought into one’s home, through a dedicated hospice, or in the hospital. We are midwived into this world with tenderness and care, and deserve to have the same type of support as we approach our final transition.
Our wishes for what happens after we pass away should be talked about as well. Currently, our community works most closely with Brezniak-Rodman Funeral Directors in West Newton. They can meet with you and they offer our community a package of funeral services at a 15% discount since we are synagogue partners.
As of now, they are the only funeral home that works with our Community Hevra Kadisha (burial society), which was started by Emunah members (Judith Himber, Hal Miller-Jacobs, and myself) and run by many members of our shul including Barbara Neustadt, who currently serves as the volunteer liaison.
The hevra kadisha lovingly prepares the body for burial utilizing our ancient traditions, surrounding the meyt/meyta (the deceased body) with respect and sanctity. These practices, although unfamiliar to many, are among the most powerful aspects of Judaism. The hevra kadisha volunteers have been trained in the sacred nature of preparing a meyt/meyta for burial, reciting its ancient liturgy, and dressing them in takhrikhin—our traditional burial shrouds. Without the hevra kadisha, a funeral home employee prepares the body for burial.
Takhrikhin comes from the same root as “keirekh”—meaning a volume like a book. Just as we bind our treasured ideas in a volume so that they can be passed down into the future, at the end of one’s life, we lovingly wrap one’s body, creating a “book” of a person’s life.
This connects powerfully to the special burial Kaddish that is usually recited at the graveside. We recite this same Kaddish when we complete a tractate of the Talmud and when we bury someone. The idea being that a person is like a great book, and we keep coming back to them again and again. Even after we put the book down or lay someone to rest, their message, their life, and their values remain with us.
There is something extraordinary about dressing someone in takhrikhin, just as the Kohein Hagadol (High Priest) was dressed in similar simple garb for Yom Kippur.
Having performed this mitzvah, I can tell you that the intensity of this practice lies beyond almost all other rituals. You can learn more about our Hevra Kadisha on its website: http://www.hevrakadisha.org/. We are currently searching for more volunteers, especially men who can help us in this sacred work. Feel free to be in touch with me, Hal Miller-Jacobs, or Barbara Neustadt to learn how you can be trained as a volunteer.
Another vital area is purchasing a burial plot. While some have chosen the Jewish section of a town cemetery, we recommend buying a plot in a Jewish cemetery. A Jewish cemetery is owned by the Jewish community, which can preserve it for generations in accordance with Jewish practice. It is difficult for a non-Jewish cemetery, like the Town of Lexington’s, to schedule a funeral quickly and to provide us with enough earth to cover the casket, or the two-piece vault cover that tradition mandates.
Beit Olam East
Many congregants will recall that in 2007, Temple Emunah made the historic decision to establish a dedicated cemetery section, to be located at Beit Olam East Cemetery in Wayland, just 15 minutes away from the shul. For the first time, our congregation would have a place where members could choose their final resting places as a community.
Our section is arranged as a Magen Dahveed—a Star of David; in many cases, we can also accommodate interfaith burial for a non-Jewish spouse. It is a serene and moving space that already contains many of the precious souls of our community. The original space, containing 185 plots, is almost completely sold; we are in discussions with the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM), which maintains Beit Olam, to expand Temple Emunah’s exclusive access in the area directly adjacent to our existing section. If you have questions about purchasing a plot in Beit Olam East, please be in touch with JCAM; be sure to tell them you are a member of Temple Emunah. If you have questions about the cemetery project or the design of our section, feel free to contact our past-president, Lester Blumberg.
Sitting shiva—mourning an immediate loved one for the traditional seven days—is a vital practice that is slipping away. While some feel that it is too inconvenient, the benefits of taking this time are quite powerful. The days of being with family, friends, and community; of sharing stories about your loved one and reciting Kaddish in the home; sets the mourner on a path of healing that will guide the coming time, the 11 months of reciting Kaddish and truly, the entire spiritual-emotional process.
Please take time to think through these issues and begin a conversation with your loved ones. Feel free to be in touch with any other questions or needs as they arise. You may also want to look at the class I have taught: The Jewish Approach to Dying, Death, Consoling, Mourning, and Remembering. (The four videos of the class can be found by clicking the linked words above in order.)
While the process of discussing death can be challenging, it is vital. When we experience loss, we can be sustained by our ancient mourning rituals, our communal organizations, and most of all, by each other.
Talking about death and dying can bring us closer to our loved ones in life, strengthening our relationships with those around us. May these conversations and our tradition bring us into closer connection with others, as well as bringing us peace and consolation before and during these times of loss.
Rabbi David Lerner