Yesterday in my hometown there are people gathering to say good-bye to a man who has passed away way too soon. A woman who graduated high school with me lost her husband at an early age. Her close friends come together to help comfort her as her life changes so drastically. This tragic death pushed me further to think about the role of death in our lives. I became acquainted with death as a teen when my dad died. When Linda died my entire life was thrown into complete turmoil. Later I had colleagues and friends pass away and more recently it seems I have entered an age where all of us who grew up together are facing the death of our parents. While we know death is always there, it shocking. Death travels with us our entire life, like a an old dog you take with you on a road trip. Most of the journey it sleeps in the back, we forget it is there until it barks. Sometimes even causes us to change the direction we are headed. Death will always interrupt our lives. How we react to this is the trick.
As someone who works in a religious setting I get asked on occasion what I and/or Judaism thinks about death and afterlife. In fact Noah asked me today if I would rather have an eternal but boring afterlife or no afterlife at all. I didn't respond well because most of the time I answer those questions from the position of an educator. In this case I told him I had been thinking about it a lot lately and I don't have an answer but I am not certain I would want a boring eternity.
In my work it is easy for me to skirt the bigger philosophical questions about the afterlife by saying that Judaism doesn't speak much about if. Much of Judaism focuses on the now not the next life. However there is a lot of interesting views of an afterlife in Judaism. When I talk about them I am teaching, or explaining what tradition teaches, often I repeat the caveat that it is not what I believe, but what our tradition teaches. You see I don't believe in the afterlife image so common in our western civilization thought. I can't imagine a heaven and hell that is populated by people for an eternity that is like a glorified and carefree version of life today or constant torment. There is no way that I am comfortable with a God that would create that situation. It makes no sense to me and seems to have grown out of a composite of various attempts to understand the meaning of life that often ended so abruptly and arbitrarily. However there is comfort in knowing or believing that those we love continue on after they no longer walk the earth. This too I find troubling but there are ways of knowing that what was important about the person does live on. Those we loved live on in our memory and the stories we tell give them a sense of continued life. All they taught us and gave us when alive is still there and is manifest when we use their knowledge and wisdom in our own lives. Just the other day I made my mother's Red Cabbage dish and for me I felt her presence in the meal. That, of course, is what is important. How those who are gone do continue to live with us, in the actions we take they have influenced, through the lessons they taught us that we pass on and by the vision they had for the world that we continue to help make happen.
Ultimately we will all grieve in our own way and we will all deal with loss in our own time. But while we may struggle with the what if of the world beyond there is one thing I know for sure. Everyone who touched me in life who have left this world continues to live on in memory and how they have influenced my life choices. They live on in me. I also believe the greatest tribute we can give those who have gone is to live life fully and carry their memory and essence with us. I am sure I will continue to struggle with these tough questions. I am not sure if I ever will come to grips with it.
To those reading this in mourning, may you be fully comforted and I hope one day these words will have meaning for you.