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. And even more generally, I’m wondering if it’s correct to contemplate death, and maybe even pray to G‑d about 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” (see our Untimely Death). And regardless of when a person dies, nobody really knows when that will be. Therefore, one must beseech G‑d throughout life for a timely death such that one is able to realize his fullest potential in life. Furthermore, we must pray that we actually die at a “good time” – one which is conducive to ours and others’ spiritual benefit.
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 G‑d knows “who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by stoning”. In fact, the Talmud (ibid) actually states that there are 903 different forms of death.
In addition, as suggested in the above-mentioned prayer, there’s not even a guarantee that a person will be properly buried after death. G‑d forbid, one’s death may result in one’s body being completely lost. For example, a person may be burned to death in many ways from many causes which totally destroy the body. Similarly, the body may be irretrievably dismembered in various forms of tragic, violent death. And through many causes, a body may go missing forever, including drowning at sea. Regarding all of these possibilities which may prevent a proper burial, the Talmud states (ibid), “A person should beseech for Divine mercy even up to the last shovel-full [of earth to cover his grave]”.
What’s more, from a metaphysical point of view, the way a person dies and what happens to the body after death has a 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 G‑d in a direct and peaceful way, thereby becoming enveloped in eternal life. And this is what the Talmud (Ibid, Moed Katan 28a) refers to as the painless “Kiss of Death” experienced by such pure and righteous individuals as Moses, Aaron and Miriam whereby the Divine Presence is revealed to the departing soul as G‑d lovingly draws it back within Himself.