I conducted two funerals in July, in Nevada City, covering for the rabbi’s vacation. I want to tell you a little about them, and the lessons I was reminded of, because as we remember our own loved ones, I invite you all to think about how to honor the people we love who are still with us.
One funeral was for a woman my age—who had been ill, but her death still surprised people. She was a widow and had one son in his 20s, about Olya’s age, and he had some challenges. She had planned her funeral down to many important details: she had done the pre-planning with the funeral home, was connected to a congregation who had a rabbi on call, and she had taken care of many details so her son didn’t have to. His cousin flew out from Arizona to be with him immediately, and his girlfriend stuck close. More family came, and the son was surrounded by love. It was a very beautiful funeral, filled with members of the congregation and with people who would be there for the living.
The other funeral was for a man in his 60s or 70s who died after several months’ of unsuccessful cancer treatment. He had two children, a widow and several ex-wives, two of whom came to the funeral. Nothing had been planned, and he wasn’t a member of the congregation, but the funeral home now had my number. He was a man who was described by everyone as a force of nature, and the ex-wives were not only still fond of him, but they were actually friends and loving to each other. Eight people sat under the tree near the grave, sharing stories about him.
Losing a loved one is one of the hardest experiences of our lives. Even a good death, where the person lived a good, long life, died surrounded by family where everyone gets to bless, be blessed, share—hurts. A lot. Not just the death, but the life minus the loved one that continues. Someone I know noted that 18 years later she still misses her conversations with her mother. People in this room have talked about how the death of their husband or wife had profoundly changed their life, and not for the better.
But especially the less good deaths—so many reasons, so many ways, raise questions along with the hurt. Decisions have to be made under difficult situations, both when the loved one is still alive and after death.
I want to talk about a few ways we can honor our loved ones, while they and we are alive, and after their death. But first I want to let you know that we will be offering a session on death and dying issues on the final Friday in October, to coincide with the torah portion Chaye Sarah, the portion that deals with our first matriarch’s death. Please, if any of this moves you or concerns you, I encourage you to come.
My parents were both dead by sudden deaths by the time I was 26, and the only consolation my sisters and I could come up with at that time was that – at least we wouldn’t have to deal with end of life issues with them. But having listened to so many of you, I know that those years are fraught with blessings as well as challenges. There are the moments when you recognize that your parent is no longer the person who cares for you, but you care for them, in a moment of role reversal. Those moments can be sacred moments – full of awe tinged with a little fear. And at the same time, I am not the only one who wishes wistfully to have had the opportunity to experience it. So I urge you, in the name of someone trying not to be covetous, to cherish moments and hours and days with your elders.
I also urge you: an important way to honor your loved ones is to HAVE THE CONVERSATION about what choices may need to be made. Have a durable power of attorney, make sure your family knows your wishes and you know theirs. It will save anguish later on. Do it. This month. Think about what is a meaningful life for each of you, when to keep going and when to stop. Because Jewish tradition values life above all things, we are not supposed to do anything to hasten death. But we are also supposed to do everything we can to minimize pain – and we are not supposed to delay it unnaturally, so much as let nature take its course: a lot of conflicting messages. My durable power of attorney used to say that I wanted feeding tubes rather than starve, until I read more about feeding tubes. If I’m at that stage, I told Sam and Olya, let me go, let me go.
Part of the conversation – I beg you – should include a discussion about what you all want when you die. Do you want traditional Jewish burial, complete with taharah and shmira – ritual washing and someone watching your body until burial? Do you want to be in a Jewish cemetery or cremated? Do you want a green funeral? Do you care about the carbon footprint? Some of this may be in response to what you’ve experienced with the people you are here for now. Some of it may be in opposition to what happened. Spend some time thinking of what is best for you and the family.
Might you or they arrange and pay for things in advance? Think about helping your family as the mother I buried in July did, ensuring her son didn’t have to deal with her death and her funeral arrangements. My sisters, on the other hand, had to deal with shock and grief and a predatory funeral director who pressured them to buy an expensive coffin, one my mother probably didn’t need. Think about taking care of this now, this month.
None of these are easy conversations, but it won’t get easier. And I promise you, it’s a way of honoring each other.
And, by the way, make sure you have a family list of your Hebrew names – that everyone has…
Another way we honor our loved ones is through tzedakah—and indeed the silent prayers will address this. Many people translate tzedakah as charity, and we would be caught back up in the theology of the English language. Jews traditionally have treated tzedakah as a form of tzedek, a form of justice. It is our responsibility to give, and give generously to make the world a better place, where justice can reign. We give as a way to keep the loved one’s memory alive.
If you are one of the generous ones, and I know many of you are, you know the joy that comes with helping to lift someone else. And when we do it in the name of someone we love, it sweetens the joy and the lessens the pain just a little. I have heard many of you talk with faces aglow about the volunteer work you do, how you are helping keep Tahoe beautiful or bringing music here, or helping to bring music education to talented youth, or helping fund local education in the schools, or supporting the hospital… By helping others, we help ourselves recognize the inherent divinity in each of us, and we, well, we feel better about ourselves as members of society. I love looking at the names on our memorial wall and hearing stories about the people. Honor your loved ones through your gifts.
Finally, we can live our own lives as a testament to our loved ones. We can embody their best qualities, the lessons they taught us—their strengths, and help them live on. We can share their stories, so that their memories will be a blessing.