"Have you ever been in a room with someone who has died?" I asked. "I mean, have you ever been with someone's body?"
The minister, who was significantly older than I was at the time, shook his head.
"Then maybe before the family gets here, you ought to go in and be with her yourself, just so you can get through your own reaction. You might be more helpful to the family that way."
I was working as a chaplain at a hospital in Cincinnati. It was Christmas. I was in rabbinical school, and each year I would volunteer to take that particular overnight shift so the Christian clergy could be home for their holiday.
This time, however, a woman died on Christmas Eve. Her pastor had come to the hospital to be with the family and say goodbye to his parishioner. But as I feared, he usually dealt with bodies that were cremated or embalmed and dressed up. He hadn't been around the newly dead, especially someone he knew.
He went into the room. When he came back out, he was a bit shaken, but I could see he was OK. The family arrived, and he put his arms around them.
I realize talking about bodies may seem morbid and bizarre, but clergy often have a strange relationship with death. We are around it frequently. Like funeral home directors, doctors, and nurses, we see people for who they are in all their mortality. It inculcates a feeling of humility and awe. And yes, it is still unnerving.
As a rabbi, I have buried many people. I have buried old people, young people and -- thankfully very rarely -- children. I was once even part of a small Michigan town's Jewish burial society called a Hevra Kadisha, where I washed a congregant and dressed him in shrouds. In Judaism, bodies are not traditionally cremated or embalmed. The body is left in its natural state and buried in an all-wood coffin so there will be no barrier to returning to the earth.
One day that will be me, I sometimes think.
Some of the most interesting people I have met are dead. I sit with families, listen to stories, usually with both laughter and tears, and am tasked with writing eulogies. The tales are fascinating. There is often sadness and anger, especially if the death was tragic, but there is usually also gratitude. Being close to death can also be strangely energizing. It makes you not want to waste time.
If I am fortunate enough to be with someone as he or she approaches death, I offer a prayer called the Sh'ma. In Judaism, people strive to say this central sentence of our faith: "Hear Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One" (Deuteronomy 6:5). If they cannot say it, I often say it for them with the family. While Judaism has no one theology of what happens to us after we die, monotheism ultimately affirms the unity of all. We are born from infinity, live our unique journeys, and return to infinity. We rejoin the Oneness, which we never really left.
I remember very specifically the moment I made peace with death. I am embarrassed to say I don't remember the man's name. There have been just too many funerals since then.
Again, it happened during rabbinical school. I was called out of the fourth grade Hebrew class I was teaching by a professor of mine at Hebrew Union College and told to go visit a man in the hospital who was dying. This was a man whose end was long, painful and unjust. He was a war veteran and deserved better. My teacher asked me to go and say the Sh'ma with him and his family in a final act of faith before he died, despite all he had been through.
Near panic, I climbed into my car. Who was I to stand by this person's bedside? Why was my teacher picking on me?
I drove to the hospital, and I was shocked that they let me in and led me right to the man's room even though I did not feel I belonged there at all. His family was not there. I stood by this man's bedside, I took his hand, I stroked his knuckles with my thumb, I recited the Sh'ma prayer, and I told him everything would be OK. I do not know what made me say that last part, but I did.
Ever since that night, I have had to believe that whatever room I find myself in, God is in that room with me, and we are all part of God's Oneness. I cannot prove it. I cannot explain it. I just believe it to be true.
Death is disconcerting, upsetting, humbling and invigorating. It is as natural as it is inevitable. And it can be liberating to name our fears and say, "One day that will be me."
That goes for you, too.
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