A Taste of Death
Visiting an erstwhile friend in a funeral home brings to the forefront thoughts and feelings of our own mortality. It brings forth frightening feelings of aloneness, desertion, and a finality that is permanent. Immortality does not exist. We are here on earth for only a brief time. The love that we have experienced leaves us as we lie motionless in the dark box that is our last domicile. There is nothing we can do to escape our fate, our finality.
There is a Jewish phrase that brings out our helplessness when confronted with death: “Weib und Kinder, Mann und Frau musst du lassen stehen und musst mit mir auf jene Welt mitgehen” (Wife and children, husband and wife, you must leave and you must go with me to nether land). The angel of death, the “malach hamoves” is the messenger that leads us into this helplessness and frightening end of our being. It is a feeling of total aloneness surrounded by darkness and inability to be the self, a thinking, speaking, acting human.
Our personhood, who and what we once were, will soon be forgotten, our once upon a time existence is gone. While the process of dying begins we see ourselves unable to speak, to move , to protest to freeze in a locked box with vermin eating our remains buried in the dark earth. The fear of the unknown robs us of the reality of death. We know that we are no longer human, that we cannot feel or hurt once our body is devoid of life. Shakespeare already recognized that “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.” Our rational mind recognizes that other creatures do not feel, think or hurt once they have died. We eat meat and know that this food was once a living thing that does not have any sensation as we eat it.
The very religious person can and does have a much different outlook than folks who are without faith. They believe in a hereafter, that their righteousness, their soul, their justice, will possibly be rewarded by peace and tranquility for having had a “lef tov”(good heart), being a good person, a Tzadik (a person who is holy, who has followed the ten commandments and has been a giver, a believer in “hashem”). There are many stories about the folks who do good deeds. They will be blessed, their soul, their very person will go to (“gan eden”) heaven, while their evil counterparts, the psychopath, the “Rosche”, will end up in “gehennem”- hell.
There are many superstitions as well as beliefs about death. It is believed that if we, as religious Jews, die before the Sabbath, we will come to the set table where we will be able to eat an outstanding delightful Schabbes meal with Leviathan, accompanied by all the wonderful foods that we can imagine (Of course, the reality is that we have no control over our demise or when our last breath will send us out of this world).
In summary, fear of death is one of the greatest fears that human beings have. Having a strong religious belief has been a deterrent to dwelling on the end of existence. Being occupied by realities, having friends and close family, helps a great deal in involvement in positive rather than negative thoughts.
Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.