PHOTO: The Hevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society) Building was erected in 1928 at the Kesser Israel cemetery. Portland has two holy societies to prepare the deceased for burial. (See below for information on the two burial societies, as well as resources for planning ahead, dying, death, grief and mourning).
BY RABBI BARRY COHEN
A significant portion of my time and energy as Community Chaplain is devoted to interacting with people who are dying and with their loved ones who are witnessing this process. After they die, I then interact with family and friends who are processing their traumatic experience.
These interactions have been emotionally charged, draining and humbling. One lesson I have learned is that the majority of us are not prepared to confront death and lack the knowledge and skills to navigate its aftermath.
I want to relate this phenomenon to the TV series Adam Conover created, “Adam Ruins Everything.” With this series, Conover addresses common misconceptions through in-depth explorations of various topics. He tackled charitable giving, voting, weight loss, college and the suburbs, among other subjects. Along the way, he presents historical background, interviews with real-life experts and peer-reviewed studies. At the end of each episode, there is a positive takeaway. He doesn’t ruin commonly held beliefs just to ruin them; he breaks them down to replace them with something that is more constructive and healthier.
One of my favorite episodes was “Adam Ruins Death.” Here is an excerpt of his opening monologue:
Here’s a challenge. I want you to believe what I am about to tell you. Not just hear it. Not just understand it. But believe it. It’s a fact that you know to be true but have never been willing to accept. And it’s this. You are going to die. It’s difficult to be able to imagine, isn’t it? Take a moment and try to picture what it is to not exist. You can’t do it. You’re imagining darkness, black. But there would be no black. There will be no color because there will be no “you” to perceive it. And your mind recoils from that idea. It’s simply unable to conceive of its own nonexistence.
How many of us have stopped what we are doing, sat down and contemplated our deaths? After I watched this episode, I did my best to conceptualize the aftermath of my death. No matter how I tried, I could not wrap my brain around the idea of my nonexistence.
I know I am in deep water right now because Judaism has much to say about the afterlife. There is more than one answer to the question, “What happens after I die?” That being said, no one knows for sure what happens to us after we die. And many of us do not even believe in an afterlife; we think that the life we have now is the only life we will ever have.
How are we to come to terms with and accept the reality that we will inevitably decline and that one day, we will take our last breath and die?
In the episode’s opening, Conover continues:
Your body is a marvelous and intricate machine built out of millions of interconnected, fragile systems, and as you age, each system begins to slowly but surely deteriorate and break down. When one fails, a doctor may be able to repair it, but at some point, there will be too many interlocking failures to proceed, and like a cascade of dominoes, your joints, your eyes, your heart, your lungs, your memory, your entire body will fail. It will happen. And while it’s difficult to hear this truth, it is essential that you accept it because every second that goes by in which you don’t is a second of your precious and finite life that you risk wasting.
With these words, Conover foreshadows the positive takeaway. It is up to us to maximize the time we have and to make this precious commodity meaningful, positive and memorable.
In general, movies and television shows are not doing us any favors concerning dying, death and mourning. They do not accurately show how the body dies, what happens near death and how we can grieve our traumas.
One way to make our lives meaningful and constructive is to understand what happens to our bodies as we age. Sherwin Nuland has written an amazing resource, How We Die. He describes, in great detail, what happens when confronted with heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer or simply old age. Knowledge is power. The more we know, the more we understand what we can control and what we cannot control. This is vital in preserving our psychological/spiritual health and in determining what kind of care we want to receive (or not to receive).
The bottom line is that life is a precious gift. We have so many ways to celebrate and preserve that gift, but we also have many alternatives about how to let go of that gift.
I am only 54, but I have had to accept the reality that parts of my body are beginning to decline. An unexpected ailment pops up here, heals and then another pops up over there. The more I understand this cold, hard reality of aging, the better decisions I will be able to make now and in the future.
I know I’m going to die. But my important next step is to devote more time and energy to how I am going to live best with the time I have left.
Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area. email@example.com
Planning Ahead Resources
In October, Jewish Family & Child Service hosted “Planning Ahead: A Jewish Imperative to Plan for the Unmentionables” by Jerry Cohen, JD, MPA.
Cohen is a retired attorney and past state director for AARP Oregon. The program focused on end-of-life planning, specifically on Advance Directives.
“From a Jewish ethical perspective, it’s imperative to plan ahead for one’s family and to express in advance one’s personal wishes,” Cohen says. “I expect attendees to leave with a better understanding of advance planning and with the motivation to begin or revisit the next steps to develop or implement such plans. I hope people will take action because of this workshop – for themselves and their loved ones.”
The following resources were shared with attendees to help them plan ahead and provide information to care providers and loved ones about specific, personal desires.
This site includes information on Advance Directives, Portable Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST), and other forms and processes related to planning ahead, including for individuals with disabilities.
The POLST is a medical order between an individual and a health-care professional that specifies medical treatments that the individual would want during a medical emergency. Emergency medical responders and emergency medicine health-care professionals follow these orders, unless there is new information presented by a patient or their legal decision maker.
The Oregon Aging & Disability Resource Connection provides 24-hour information and assistance to older adults, people with disabilities and caregivers. They can assist with enrolling in government programs, investigating possible abuse, locating adult- care homes and more.
Cohen and his wife, Ruth, created this website for Evolving Elders. The services are all related to aging, caregiving, planning, etc.
RESOURCES FOR DEATH, DYING & MOURNING
Portland has two holy societies of volunteers who prepare the deceased for burial according to Jewish tradition: Chevra Kavod haMet and the Portland Hevra Kaddisha.
For questions about preparing for end of life, dying, death and mourning, visit ChevraKavodHaMet.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Michael Rosenberg at the Portland Hevra Kaddisha at email@example.com or 503-519-2454.
Hesed Shel Emet
Hesed’s mission is to provide a Jewish burial in keeping with the traditions and practices of Judaism for individuals who could not afford it. jewishportland.org/ourcommunity/hesed-shel-emet
A Jewish Ending: Dying, death, mourning and beyond
Chevra Kavod haMet hosted a Zoom program about how to be prepared to make practical and personal decisions about the time before death, the moment of passing, preparations for burial, internment options, stages of mourning and the afterlife. See a recording at tinyurl.com/2s3zb8r5.
Those topics were covered in more depth during a spring series that can be viewed at chevrakavodhamet.org/questions/continued-learning/.
JFCS Grief Connection
Jewish Family & Child Service hosts a monthly grief-processing group for adults the first Friday of every month at 10 am on Zoom. For details, visit jfcs-portland.org/grief-connection/.
National Jewish Death & Dying Resources
Shomer Collective (shomercollective.org) serves as a concierge, curator, convener and change agent for end-of-life conversations and experiences, guided by Jewish values. See partners: shomercollective.org/our-partners.