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Death…the next move

September 8, 2009 – 12:02 am9 Comments
Death facing some tough decisions in a department store in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Death facing some tough decisions in a department store in "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey"

By Almoni

Since we all unavoidably experience death, I thought I should write about it. Oddly, despite my complete disconnection from traditional approaches, as the High Holidays approach, death is something that comes to mind.

I’ve probably got about 30 years left, and since I’ve started to have various serious health problems (bummer…), death is something increasingly on my mind. Is that guy with the sickle starting to follow me around? Am I going to pop over in the street? Will it be painful? I really don’t know.

I grew up in post-Holocaust Melbourne, so Death, dressed as a Nazi, seemed to be everywhere, even as I went to sleep

I grew up with photos of the camps, black and white movies, and accounts of the horrors. People had numbers on their arms, and family went to commemorations.  There was always wailing in the synagogue on the high holidays during Yizkor, as the names of the death camps were read out. Perhaps I was over-exposed.

The first funeral I went to as a child was that of one of my parents. It traumatized me with the hysterics, screaming, and role playing. I was compelled to attend Yizkor, and it seemed to me, I had the ‘privilege’ of constantly going to funerals and having to say kaddish all the time.

Consequently, in too many years of Elwood and Caulfield Shuls it seemed that death hovered on high. The High Holiday liturgy reminds us of death:

Who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

Unetaneh tokef (see this and this) is not exactly lightweight stuff that encourages optimism, but given that it was written in a period of martyrdom, you can see where it’s coming from.

I think that the constant awareness of the danger and inevitability of death is still up-front and central in Jewish culture. Hence all the terrible jokes involving death, the post-Shoah trauma, the strong fears about Israel’s security, the protectiveness and inwardness of the community. I’ve seen a sort of Schadenfreude at funerals with people grabbing the shovel to tip heavy, wet clay on a coffin, thud thud, as if they gain extra points for their officious piety.

I’ve been on a bus going across the Mount of Olives and ba’alei tshuvah (the newly observant) have insisted on closing all the windows so no cohanim are polluted. I’ve seen haredim running towards a chevra kadisha in Me’ah She’arim with some poor sod’s toes sticking out of the stretcher as it bounces along. For those people, death and the spirits are very near.

According to our tradition, we won’t be resurrected until the real messiah comes. There have been putative exceptions to this, but for most of us, there really is incertitude about the nature of life after death in the Olam ha-bah (the World to come). Maybe there is a dreary Sheo’ol (Hell), maybe there isn’t.

But certainly we won’t float around with angels’ wings, much as I like the idea of being a Renaissance cherub. What appears to have priority in traditional Judaism is the cultural ceremony around death that is observed, to different degrees, in different Jewish traditions.

This tradition makes the death process far more scary than it should be. I don’t go for such ritual. In a humanist world, we bless what a person was as a person, their connection and love with others, and his or her blessed name.

More recently, I have witnessed actual deaths. It was a privilege to be at the death of another parent, hard as it was in the last hours. We all sat in homage, as life ebbed away; and then it did. The body was nothing, the jaw went slack. But it was painful for them in the last hours, as it was for my grandmother more recently. She cried in pain. Although I missed her actual moment of departure, at least at the Chevra Kadisha I could be with her body for a few moments, tiny and asleep.

I had one medical emergency which sent me into a semi-coma. There was a point of light at the end of the tunnel, the entry to nothing, and everything else seemed to be in suspension. I suppose that is what happens as the brain switches off. Of course, there is the chance that the physical process of death will be far more horrible, like a car accident where death isn’t so quick. I fear that like anyone else.

Nonetheless, I think that what we worry about when it comes to death is not the ‘act’ of death itself, because it is almost impossible to conceive of that point of movement from life to nothing. We worry about the effect of death on other people.

There’s no doubt that we need a ceremony or ritual for those who die. My concern is the sense of obligation about the ‘right’ sort of grieving practice that is forced upon people (that’s my experience), and in fact, only causes more tension and upset.

I’ve been to a Quaker service where nothing was said until someone wanted to – we told stories of the departed, with nothing forced. There were many silences, and these were as good as the talking. I’ve been to a Catholic funeral replete with Jesuits and nuns that was gobsmackingly pagan. Only the afternoon tea with the nuns seemed of this world.

There are elements of Judaism and some Christian mourning cultures in what I want for my funeral. That death is there, the body is nothing, and an acceptance that I tried my best, sometimes failed, and struggled to understand what it has all meant. I hope that there are nice silences, no weeping, some music and a great spread afterwards. I don’t need traditional religion, and I don’t need piety. I want happiness.

That’s the sort of send-off I want. Furthermore, I’m not in favour of the thud thud of the coffin. Energy-wasteful as it will be, let my burnt offering (after the good bits have been given to other people) be enclosed in a giant firecracker, and launched into the sky at night over a bay or lake. I hope there’s a good reflection in the water. Crack a few bottles of champagne and do what we did in the 70s. Laugh, and forget about any life to come, messiahs, prophets or coercive ritual. Then, just get on with living and improving the world, tikkun olam.


Further reading:

Arthur Cohen with Paul Mendes Edited Paul Mendes-Flohr, Contemporary Jewish religious thought: original essays on critical concepts, movements, and beliefs.


FAQs about Humanistic Judaism

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  • ariel says:

    I have been to a few Jewish funerals (R”L) and don’t recall any of the things described in the article. Possibly because they were for the most part for elderly people “whose time had come”, so to speak.

    I found the drinking of whiskey and eating of cake each night at the minyan to be a celebration of the deceased’s life and their soul’s ascent to it’s Source. I don’t recall any hysterics, really.

    Your observations about “ba’alei teshuva” closing curtains and others thudding the dirt onto the coffin probably say more about those individuals than Jewish mourning.

  • Woody Allen was once asked what he would like people to say at his funeral. His answer: “Oh look, he’s still moving!”

    As for me, if I’m actually dead, I don’t really care. The decision regarding how best to celebrate my life, what to do with my body, and whether white wine or red wine goes better with the post-funeral smorgasbord is a decision that the living can make. After all, isn’t the whole business for their benefit anyway?

  • Yossi says:

    I was interested to read this, as I have just been counselling a peer who has suddenly discovered the mortality of humans and now has a complex about dying.

    I too have had a near death experience, and emerged with a second chance at life.

    One of the biggest things I think that distinguishes Judaism from other religions, is that religion focusses on “living as a Jew”, and not “dying as a Jew”. What is the point of dying Jewish if you have not opted to live Jewish? You have said that “I don’t need traditional religion, and I don’t need piety. I want happiness.”

    Dare I suggest that a very real path to happiness is through traditional religion and piety? Or is that too pious to say?

    Death as we know is a certainty. The values and the accomplishments that we develop through our lives are the only currency we take from this world to the next, “the crown of a good name” as the Mishnah says. Our self worth, satisfaction, and sense of wellbeing comes from the way in which we live our lives. If we are at peace with ourselves and our own spirituality then it contributes both to our long life in this world, and our ability to confront the Beit Din Shel Shamayim when our time comes.

  • ariel says:

    My doctor once told me that at university lectures, death was defined as “a congenital, terminal condition”. :)

  • ariel,

    I heard that one as “life is a sexually transmitted, terminal disease”.

    Having been to enough funerals (for people whose “time has come” and otherwise), I can certainly relate to the various outpourings of emotion. It may especially be so in Jewish funerals because they often happen within 24 of the death, when emotions are still very raw. Even in the case of someone who had a full life and died at a ripe old age, the sense of loss is felt very intensely at the ceremony itself. And that awful thud of clods of earth on a coffin is another one of those moments that tell us “this is it”, rather than schadenfreude on the part of those present (who get to go home afterwards).

    Closing the windows in a bus would be something you do to avoid Cohanim becoming ritually impure by “ohel” (lit. tent), when, for example, bus passes under a tree that also spans some graves.


    You raise an interesting point on living/dying as a Jew, and yet there are many stories of Jews who have lived very secular lives, but when it comes to death, they want nothing less than the full Orthodox taharah and burial.

  • Almoni says:


    You say “Dare I suggest that a very real path to happiness is through traditional religion and piety? Or is that too pious to say?”

    My suggestion (well, not just suggestion), but the practice of many others, is that they have superseded traditional religion, though they are very attached to the their heritage, identity, and insights it offers them. And in my case, and that of others ‘traditional religion and piety’ are associated with oppression of self. People at the edge of cultures have often moved onto something else.

    It’s possible to regard this as lightweight and self-serving, but I am talking, I suggest, about a serious and profound issue for each and all of us. We all deal with our non-immortality, the greatest of challenges that we find hard to comprehend (Freud), in our own way. And maybe, just maybe, in dealing with this, we come up with new insights into the purpose of our existence, beyond tradition.

  • Yossi says:


    I’m not suggesting you cannot live as a Jew but then die as a Jew. As you say, many people do exactly this. Whether they miss the point or not is another matter that we can hardly generalise about.

    I don’t want to deflect the discussion, but my definition of being a reglious Jew totally integrates the heritage, identity and insights of which you speak.

    We all have free choice, but sadly, too many of our own are never extended the opportunity of making that free choice, as they are not sufficiently exposed to what that choice entails.

    I’ll stop, because this is far too philosophical. There is a far more pragmatic reality. I can’t sum it up succinctly, but it was also quoted as follows: “Life is a Sh1t sandwich. The more bread you have the less Sh1t you have to eat.”

  • ariel says:

    David I think you’re right about the quote

  • Gary Mallin says:

    Spike Milligan chose his own epitaph. ”I told you I was ill.”

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