I say the following without irony: if you find discussions of death upsetting or triggering, skip this article.
I’ve been wanting to write about death for some time now but I’ve postponed it because of various passings and people I know who were in aveilus (mourning). I didn’t want to talk about death when people I knew were experiencing its immediate aftermath. I have since come to the realization that, whenever I talk about it, somebody reading the article is going to be experiencing death’s immediate aftermath. It’s simply unavoidable. The alternative is never to talk about death and my entire point in writing this is that we should talk about death.
I have a tolerance level for discussing death casually that some people find disconcerting. For example, I am not all that old but I have often mentioned my intention to take an early retirement. When a colleague asked me why, I replied nonchalantly that I’d like to have a few years to enjoy myself before I die. My colleague expressed shock and tried to assure me that I’d have many healthy years. I thanked him for the sentiment but I replied very matter of factly that my family history did not support his optimism. Such a relaxed attitude is apparently not the norm.
My comfort with the subject of death is the polar opposite of the attitude that many others have, which is denial. Far too many people neglect to make necessary plans, like insurance, halachic wills, guardians for their kids or organ donor cards, simply because they can’t bring themselves to contemplate the inevitable. I believe that the Torah wants us to accept the reality of death.
I say this largely because of the obligation to mourn. This occurs in a cycle that can be broken into four parts. The first is a kind of pre-mourning period called aninus (aninut), which is the stage after a close relative has died but before he or she has been buried. In an unprecedented halachic move, an onen or onenes (onenet) is actually exempt from performing mitzvos! (They’re still not allowed to violate prohibitions, of course, but they do not fulfill obligations like reciting brachos or putting on tefillin.) The reason that an onen is exempt from mitzvos is to enable them to focus on the needs of the deceased.
Following the deceased’s burial comes the actual mourning period, which is a series of successively-lighter stages. The most intense is the first week, which is called shiva (meaning seven). During this stage, mourners sit on low seats, they don’t look in the mirror or groom themselves, and they observe other extreme forms of mourning. The next stage lasts until the 30th day from the deceased’s passing and is called shloshim (meaning 30). During this stage, men still refrain from haircuts and shaving. The final stage, when mourning the loss of a parent, is the balance of the first year. During this time, the mourner still may not listen to music or purchase new clothing. (There are many more laws, these are just an indicative sampling.)
In psychology, there are traditionally five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. (This is called the Kübler-Ross model and, like most things that make their way into pop culture, the details are generally oversimplified by magazines and TV shows.) Many people tend to get “stuck” at a stage on their way to acceptance. This is unhealthy. The Torah doesn’t just permit us to mourn the loss of a loved one, it requires us to do so. It actively forces us to confront the unpleasant reality, helping us to accept it. In fact, the first thing we do upon hearing of a close relative’s passing is to recite the bracha of Dayan HaEmes, that God is the True Judge. Doing so is a verbal statement of our acceptance. The mourning cycle guides us gradually through the grieving process.
The Torah doesn’t want us only to accept our losses, it also wants us to acknowledge the reality of our own mortalities. Let’s look, for example, in Pirkei Avos. In Avos 2:10, Rabbi Eliezer advises us to repent the day before we die. This may not seem like an achievable goal but the work Avos d’Rabbi Nosson contextualizes it for us. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him how, exactly, one is meant to know when he will die. Rabbi Eliezer replied that that was exactly his point: we might die tomorrow, so we’d better repent today!
The statement in Avos 3:1 is much blunter. In that mishna, Akavya ben Mehalaleil tells us to consider three things in order to keep from sinning: where we came from, where we’re going, and before Whom we will be expected to give an accounting. Where we come from, he tells us, is “a putrid drop” and where we’re going is “a place of dust, worms and maggots.”
We are told to contemplate some unpleasant realities – that we could die tomorrow and that our bodies will decompose – in order to achieve some lofty goals – repentance and abstention from sin. But lofty goals notwithstanding, these are still unpleasant realities and confronting them is hard. Nevertheless, that is what the Torah wants us to do.
I imagine that everyone reading this has experienced loss of one kind or another. It’s truly the saddest part of life. We’re not meant to love death. We’re certainly not expected to court it or tempt it. Life is our most precious gift and we do everything in our power to preserve it – v’chai bahem, we keep the Torah so that we may live (Leviticus 18:5). But we must acknowledge that all good things come to an end because it could literally happen to any of us at any time. This knowledge should motivate us to take care of our responsibilities, both temporal (insurance, halachic wills, guardians for the kids, organ donor cards) and spiritual (repentance and abstention from sin).
Just as I hope that my colleague’s optimism trumps my family history, I pray that everyone reading this enjoys good health until the age of 120. But as Rabbi Eliezer advises us, we should prepare ourselves – both materially and spiritually – for the possibility that such might not always be the case.