Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Friend, the Grim Reaper

As a lover of history, I am always amazed how many have swiftly lost our appreciation for this relatively comfortable existence most of us enjoy; supermarkets (as opposed to growing crops, along with a possibility of starvation), indoor plumbing (outhouse. 'Nuf said), babies and mothers both surviving the birthing process, just to name but a few. 

As for death? It used to be a constant companion. No one was safe from it. Weathered elders, hearty adults, energetic children were all susceptible; my grandfather could recall the epidemics that wiped out families completely. 

Our lives are now so disinfected from the natural processes around us. The all-encompassing terror that invades us whenever death is mentioned is neither healthy nor realistic. 

When someone pleads on FB, "Please daven for my 89 year old grandmother!" I am a tad perplexed. 89, huh? What a long and fulfilling life she must have had!

Bess Lovejoy ponders this subject
Death once occurred at home, with friends and family gathered around. Local women were responsible for washing the body and sewing the shroud. People sometimes slept in the same room as corpses, because there was nowhere else to go. In the Middle Ages, cemeteries often acted as the public square: you didn’t just walk on the graves, you ate, drank, traded and sometimes even sang and danced on top of them. 
According to a news story I saw recently, most people want to die at home, in the comfort of their own familiar surroundings. But most pass away in the hospital, after being hooked up to machines and tubes, not a painless process. Doctors often do not educate their patients as to their actual prognoses, having them make uninformed decisions that result in a tortured, rather than peaceful, end.

Us Jews, who speak of death so often in our prayers, do not realize its actual significance. 
Despite the (frequently commendable) advances that have removed death as a constant presence in our lives, it remains inevitable, and many of us are ill prepared when it comes.
The erasure of death also allows us to imagine that our mortal trivialities and anxieties are permanent, while a consistent awareness of death — for those who can stomach it — can help us live in the here and now, and teach us to treasure what we already have. In fact, a study by University of Missouri researchers released this spring found that contemplating mortality can encourage altruism and helpfulness, among other positive traits.
As it says constantly in our texts, the living have it better than the dead since we can do. Yet we push off such "unpleasant" thoughts, preferring to wallow in the assurance that we have forever. I can't stand it when 60 year old women insist they are no more than 30. Why so insecure about your age? If we know we don't have all 120, we are more driven to be at peace with our family and neighbors, to be kind, to do things right.

In the Talmud, the death of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (Ketubot 104a)
Rabbi’s handmaid ascended the roof  . . . she prayed: ‘May it be the will [of the Almighty] that the immortals may overpower the mortals.’ As the Rabbis incessantly continued their prayers for [heavenly] mercy she took up a jar and threw it down from the roof to the ground. [For a moment] they ceased praying and the soul of Rabbi departed to its eternal rest. 
We were always taught that the handmaid was righteous in her action to end his agony; she hurled that pot after careful thought and deliberation, not from cluelessness. She is praised, rather than scorned, for severing the ties that bound his neshama to earth.
Jewish cemetery in Hungary
I do not find cemeteries to be frightening places. If anything, I find them comforting. The grassy, quiet area that houses my grandparents' remains is a place of serenity. I might as well get used to it; one day I will be there as well.
It’s never easy to confront mortality, but perhaps this year, while distributing the candy and admiring the costumes of the neighborhood kids, it’s worth returning to some of the origins of Halloween by sparing a thought for those who have gone before. As our ancestors knew, it’s possible that being reminded of their deaths will add meaning to our lives.       


Mr. Cohen said...

"In 1848 [CE]...Often several families lived in one room of a rickety house with no indoor plumbing and little heat or light."

SOURCE: Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell (chapter 1, page 5), year 1996, Greenwood Press, Connecticut

The Illustrated London News, 1875 March 13 showed a typical working-class dwelling in London with: laundry, bathing, cooking and sleeping all being done in the same room.
Clothes hand fron pegs on the wall and the door is open for light and ventilation.
SOURCE: Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell (chapter 2, page 30), year 1996, Greenwood Press, Connecticut

"About 1,000 miners died in cave-ins and other accidents every year...they wore safety lamps that provided very little illumination...the workday was 11 or 12 hours."
SOURCE: Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell
(chapter 3, page 59), year 1996, Greenwood Press, Connecticut

CONCLUSION: All of us must praise and thank HASHEM many times for the countless benefits that we constantly recieve and the relatively comfortable lives we lead.

HASHEM, I thank you that I do not work a 12 hour day!

HASHEM, I thank you that I do not live in one-room house!

HASHEM, I thank you that I live in a place filled with heat and light and a separate laundry room!

Mr. Cohen said...

“Victorian domestic technology would be very difficult to cope with today.
Bathrooms and central heating were rare, even in wealthy homes.
There was seldom any running water above the basement or ground-floor level.
Lighting was dim and often unsafe.”

SOURCE: Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell
(chapter 6, page 117), year 1996, Greenwood Press, Connecticut

HASHEM, I thank you that I live in a place with bathrooms, efficient heating!

HASHEM, I thank you that I live in a place with hot and cold running water 365 days a year and bright safe lighting!

tesyaa said...

Normally I don't respond to Mr. Cohen, but there was an awesome series on PBS about 10 years ago called "1900 House" that I think Princess Lea might enjoy.

PremonitionsofanAfterthought said...

On Death-
From an analytical, historical perspective you are absolutely right. Death was far more familiar and common in previous times- and death lends life meaning, for only things of limited quantity are valuable. Therefore, for life to be valuable it must inherently, be limited. True. True. True- all true. However having witnessed painful loss of loved ones that close friends experienced, and having recently experienced the loss of a loved one myself I must protest the flippant, even naive tone of your post. Death in hospitals is painful. Death at home is painful. Death is painful. Period. When someone you love is dying it hurts. It doesn't matter how long they lived. "They lived a long life" is NOT a comfort. Someone I love is not here. It doesn't matter if they were 89 or 67. I loved them. If you love someone you want them in your life. This was true all throughout history and it remains true today. No matter how old someone's Bubbie is- she is loved, she is someone's wife, someone's mother someone's sister, someone's aunt. She deserves prayers because to someone she means the world. To heck with the fact that she's been here so long. It's never an okay time to say goodbye. Death is very final. It hurt when my grandfather died. It hurt when my great uncle died. It tore my heart up to see close friends lose their parents in tragic accidents. It is all encompassing, life changing, heart wrenching, earth shattering when death hits even closer to home. It is not okay. I loved her. She belongs here with me. It doesn't matter how old she was when she dies- she still belongs here with me my family. I will live my life with much more meaning because she died. But I do not enjoy the "peace" of a cemetery. Or "embrace my future" Death is ugly. I don't think anyone should so flippantly say they can embrace death.

tesyaa said...

I am happy to say I attended seminary with the talented Dr. Erica Brown, the author of the forthcoming "Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death".

I was not paid to post this information.


Princess Lea said...

Mr. C: Grand life we live nowadays, blessed be God!

Tesyaa: I remember that show! Man, was that depressing . . .

Thanks for the book link!

POAA: My Babi died a few years ago; she was in her low 80s. She lingered for over a month; when she passed there was mostly relief that she was spared further pain.

Her husband died more than 20 years previously. My father was in his low 30s. The grieving process was not remotely comparable.

I do apologize if I sound flip; that was not my intention. But today we are not real when it comes to death. I am not talking of embracing, but finding a way to make its concept bearable.

My Zeidy, who passed away when I was a child, had a baby brother who died himself a few years ago. I still can't believe he is gone; he was a dear reminder of my Zeidy, the last link.

But again there is the idea that just because someone has died they are completely gone. As for being "supposed" to be with us, we are not to question the the time the Eibishter grants to us. He is now supposed to be with the Eibishter. He has certainly earned that position of being near Him.