I have been thinking a lot about death lately. Thank
G-d, it’s not that I’m ill or anything; but one always hears about some tragedy or other and it’s hard not to take that to heart. Even more generally, I’m wondering if it’s correct to contemplate death, and maybe even pray to G-dabout death. That is, when and how to go. We seem to think and ask a lot about how we live. But a person doesn’t live forever, so what about thinking more about that part of life, namely death?
Judaism certainly celebrates life. But it also perceives life in the larger context and purpose. The result is maintaining a realistic and healthy attitude toward death. Thus, many verses and Talmudic teachings instruct us that in the midst of living and celebrating life we are to recall the day of death and beyond in order to define and refine the way we live:
“A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth” (Eccl. 7:1). This is because through death from temporal life, one is born into the World-to-Come of eternal life.
“Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. From where have you come? From a putrid drop. Where are you going? To the place of dust, worm and maggot. Before whom are you destined to give account and reckoning? Before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” (Pirkei Avot 3:1)
In fact, the Talmudic Sages taught (Berachot 8a) that the verse “For this, let every pious man pray to You, for a time of finding” (Ps. 32:6) is referring to death. Meaning we should be praying to find a “good” death — i.e. a timely and proper death.
Regarding a timely death, although it is beyond the scope of our discussion here, suffice it to say that Judaism recognizes that someone may die “before his time.” And regardless of when a person dies, nobody really knows when that will be. Therefore, one must beseech
Regarding a proper form of death, just as there’s no guarantee when a person will die, there’s no guarantee how one will die. This is as in the U’netane Tokef prayer of the High Holidays which states that only
What’s more, from a metaphysical point of view the way a person dies and what happens to the body after death has tremendous impact on the trajectory through which the soul journeys from this world to the next. An untimely, tragic death that also prevents proper burial results in great suffering for the soul and a circuitous return to the spiritual realm. By contrast, a natural, serene death at the conclusion of a long and productive life, followed by a proper burial and organic return of the body to the earth, enables the soul to return to