By Robin Davina Meyerson
As part of a program initiated by the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, nearly 100 rabbis nationwide participated during Shabbos ParashasVayechi (January 2–3) in a discussion with congregants about end-of-life issues. ParashasVayechi was chosen because it is the first time in the Torah that someone becomes ill, prepares himself and his family for death, and reveals burial wishes.
It seems simple, but it’s not. All across America, families are torn apart when a loved one is ill and they’re not prepared with necessary documents. Because health care is changing rapidly, it’s vital to designate a health-care proxy and a halachic living will. If not, decisions may be made by family or hospital staff contrary to Jewish law.
Many Jews are also uninformed and confused about burial. One-third of Jews choose cremation (more than 50 Jewish bodies are cremated daily). Above-ground interment is increasingly popular and fashionable despite being against Jewish custom. The importance of having the conversation and preparing written burial instructions and a will before a person dies or is ill was stressed.
During the Shabbos of ParashasVayechi was an ideal time to discuss these difficult topics. The parashah’s theme of kindness to the deceased, “chesedshelemes,” provides an important opportunity to initiate a dialogue on illness and make advance directives and wills. Rabbanim across the country gave sermons on these important topics, expounding on how these basic traditions reflect the most profound and core beliefs of Judaism. Rabbanim discussed halachic living wills; Jewish hospice care and end-of-life medical decisions; buying graves in advance of need—here or in Israel; making a will; and getting involved before a loved one or friend dies.
Some people were uncomfortable discussing death and burial, but when the initiative was part of a nationwide community awareness project, it served to ease the discomfort. The National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK) has been working tirelessly developing new initiatives to educate people and prepare them so that at a time of crisis, the family can make educated decisions. Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, founder of NASCK, introduced the ParashasVayechi program for rabbanim over 30 years ago at the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, whose chevrakadisha he directs. Rabbanim are key figures leading and guiding the community. Often, a call is made to a funeral director for whom Jewish law is not a priority and non-Jewish choices could be made. Therefore, rabbanim must educate, set standards, and lead.
As part of the nationwide initiative, all rabbis were encouraged, when officiating at Jewish burials or monument unveilings, to take one or two minutes to speak of the good fortune of this deceased person to have been given a Jewish burial and not cremation. Also, they should recognize the family that made this important choice for their loved one. Since many attendees could be attending a traditional Jewish burial for the first time and likely be thinking of their own mortality and end-of-life choices, the rabbi’s words could have a profound impact.
Rabbis were encouraged to focus on, using their discretion and judgment, the advantages of burial beyond the religious imperatives. Burial provides closure for the family, a place to visit for generations, a sense of Jewish identity, and respect for the body that served us in life. One might also address the essential Jewish religious beliefs in a positive and non-judgmental manner. These include the belief in an eternal soul, reward and punishment, and resurrection. Jewish burial provides the highest form of comfort for the deceased and those left behind. The rabbi should seek to be passionate and sincere and matter-of-fact. If all rabbanim discussed these matters at every funeral, it could prove to be transformational.
The National Association of Chevra Kadisha is dedicated to helping all Jews with end-of-life issues. For more information, visit www.nasck.org or www.peacefulreturn.org, call 718-847-6280, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.