Friday, May 12, 2017

Emor: A Seat at the Death Cafe

I regularly listen to a podcast called "Death, Sex, and Money." Its host, Anna Sale, starts every episode by saying it's a show "about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more." Sale does a terrific job highlighting challenging subjects and interviewing fascinating guests in one (or more) of these three areas.
For some reason, I'm really feeling connected to these topics right now, and thinking a lot about how we indeed should be discussing them more. Well, last week my blog post dealt with sex, and this week I'd like to follow up by writing about death. Maybe next week we'll talk about money; I haven't decided yet. As someone who's officiated at over 100 funerals, and who has regularly dealt with dying, death, and grief, I sometimes forget that most people don't encounter the dead as often as I do. I know people's lack of exposure also means the subject can be seen as weird, spooky, uncomfortable, sad, and even terrifying for many. Some even avoid it at all costs. So let's talk about it.

I first realized the disparity when I was listening to that same podcast, "Death, Sex, and Money." At various times, I heard interviews with funeral directors and morticians, and everything they said sounded quite familiar to me, yet it seemed to surprise and amaze many of their listeners.
Soooo, I guess funerals and caskets AREN'T a regular part of most people's work week? Once, when I was driving Rebecca to a meeting, I had a sleeping baby in the car whom we didn't want to wake up. She jumped out to go to her appointment, and I kept driving. It seemed natural to me, then, to pull into a nearby cemetery in which I'd performed a few funerals, and to just drive around for a while in peace and quiet. I even stopped at one point and had a snack. Later, when I told my wife, she thought it was a VERY strange decision! I imagine her perspective is more common today, and yet, our sources, Biblical and Rabbinic, display a familiarity and comfort around death that seems more in line with my experience than with that of most people I know. So what changed?

The very first verse of our Torah portion, Emor, tell us that a priest in the ancient Temple could not "defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin" (Lev. 21:1), meaning that he could not handle a dead body for funeral preparations.
The Torah states this as an exception to the norm, suggesting that most (non-priest) Israelites did, in fact, physically handle their deceased loved ones themselves. Later on, the text enumerates things and actions that can make a priest impure, and thus temporarily unfit for temple service. Included in that list is "if one touches anything made impure by a corpse..." (22:4). In society today, this wouldn't be a concern for most people (excluding myself and other clergy). We aren't ever close to a dead body; how would we encounter anything that had also touched a deceased individual? For better or worse, people in the ancient world dealt with death all the time, and they therefore spoke about it often, wrote laws dealing with death in everyday life, and were just all around more comfortable engaging with the subject.

But WE can't actually escape it. These days, we try to employ euphemisms like "passed away" or "is no longer with us," to somehow avoid words like "corpse" and "dead." Death can be incredibly traumatic, and often causes terrible disruptions to our everyday lives, by inflicting chaos and upheaval upon us.
And that's true whether we discuss it or not! So simply not talking about it doesn't really protect us. Next fall, Ohev is going to host an evening called "Death Cafe." I imagine even that title provokes some kind of reaction in many of you. It is intended as an evening to talk about experiences, memories, fears, concerns, reflections, and all manner of questions surrounding death. Why? Because - as the podcast suggests - we NEED to talk about it more. It isn't part of our daily lives... which sometimes makes it scary and incredibly disconcerting. But that also leaves us terribly vulnerable to being devastated by it when death, inevitably, affects us somehow. Yes, there are topics that most of us avoid at ALL costs. Often because they're terribly, terribly uncomfortable. And yet, I encourage you to reassess your own reaction to these subjects. Maybe you can even lean in, rather than run away. And just maybe, death will start to seem a little less scary.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Drozdp on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Robbot on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Worksafe-commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of van Gogh's "Terrace of a Cafe at Night," courtesy of Szilas on Wikimedia Commons

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