Jubilee Part Five: Encountering Death Consciously

Singing the Bones by Helen Redman, 1993
Singing the Bones by Helen Redman, 1993

When it is my time, the Holy One will take me. I’d like the folks left behind here to know that I am not gone when that happens. In my tradition there is a teaching that the only thing you can take with you to the other side are your mitzvot. I use the translation of this word here as deeds of loving kindness or rightness. So, if my deeds of goodness follow me and come with me, I should do a lot of them! It’s not a reason to engage with mitzvot, but rather a consequence of living my life as if I was already in Heaven, a place where kindness and beauty reign. There is plenty of Hell here on this planet. I have never been afraid of going to such a realm, I just want the suffering on this planet to be done. So, I orient towards Heaven on earth, bringing beauty, goodness, love, warmth, comfort and delight into this time and place. My need to walk this particular path is coded in my core. I feel pulled and guided by that force constantly.

Taking a retreat from engagement with the folks I love and who I just know and encounter on a daily basis is a radical step. I am interested in a specific kind of departure from the norm. I want to explore leaving this world consciously. If I dip into the absence/death-well, while I am still living, I get to practice to navigate territory that is very uncomfortable for all of us. This choice, on my part, about why I need to do this is so complex. I am not talking about taking my life. I have never felt inclined to do so and I doubt I ever will. Looking at death in depth and consciously, is different from venerating it or reaching towards it.

If I were Hindu, I would just say I was going to spend some time with the Goddess Kali and that would make sense to folks who were steeped in that tradition. Buddhist practitioners engage in years of contemplation and “practice” around death. There are complex meditations that involve envisioning your death, the death of those you love and death in general. In the modern secular world, we have a fascination with vampires, zombies and ghosts. But engaging with those ideas as entertainment or story-line is very different than looking at the reality of death head on.

I’ve been looking at it literally with my head on (using my mind and body to be present around death) all of my life. Over fifteen years ago, when a dear friend became ill with cancer, her final wish was that our community endeavor to bury her according to Jewish tradition. This meant engaging in study around traditional Jewish practices and creating a Hevra Kadisha locally. Hevra Kadisha translates literally as Sacred or Holy Community/Society, most folks think of it as the Jewish Burial Society.

The service of a Hevra Kadisha is done anonymously and involves preparing a person for burial according to ancient beautiful Jewish practices from Torah. In my 49 years on this planet I’ve gone from fishing for gravestones in a stream (see Jubilee Part Four) to gently preparing those who have died to enter the earth.

We enter a river of blessings in this process as well as doing the heavy lifting, purifying and cleaning. I do this work with four or five other people mostly in silence with only specific prayers recited as we engage in the various tasks. We bathe and cleanse and lovingly robe folks in simple linen garments modeled along the lines of the High Priest from the Torah. We wrap them tight in a shroud, like a cocoon and place them in plain wooden boxes. We place broken shards of pottery over their eyes and mouth to signify that their soul has broken free of its physical vessel. We lovingly praise and honor their physical bodies as the homes of their souls and we ask forgiveness if anything we do while preparing them wasn’t done properly. This service is considered a mitzvah/commandment/obligation that is of the highest order. In my community, we do this for free. In all Jewish communities, if you do this work, you are actually doing it for the person who has died, and they cannot thank you or pay you, which is why it is considered to be a very special mitzvah.

My service with the Hevra Kadisha has brought me in contact with death in real time and with real humans whose bodies I have engaged with. I have also had the privilege of being present with folks as they were dying and on their journey across the “River Jordan.”

The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994
The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994

Intrinsic to my need to go on retreat is a concept called L’Shem Shamayim: for the sake/name of Heaven. Underneath my desire for stillness is a strong and always flowing current of connection with the Divine. I need to see what it is that the next phase of my life is supposed to be oriented around and towards. I need to find out what I can do for or in the name of L’Shem Shamayim and for the world to come/Olam Ha-Ba. This idea of a world to come can be interpreted to mean tomorrow or the world we create, not just the world on the other side of life, but that is also part of its meaning. So, taking time away to explore through prayer, through meditation, through engagement with solitude and nature and through active study are all ways for me to connect to Olam Ha-Ba.

In this world, which we call, Olam Ha-Zeh, I am also taking time away to get still and see what unfolds in a place that is less stimulating and full of others and their needs. I am often seen as the “spiritual” one in my family, in a group or gathering. I do not like this, when it separates me from others and makes me seem or look different. While I am happy to be seen as a woman engaged with Torah, with Holiness, I do not want to be the placeholder for Holiness in other peoples’ lives. I want everyone to engage and have relationship with what is Kadosh/Sacred/Holy to them.

I also don’t want connection to a spiritual reality to be seen as something that can only be done in a big way. Folks who are quieter or less obvious and vocal are just as capable of connection with the Divine as I am. There is no singular or right way to connect or be engaged with spiritual practice. Although there are tried and true and well-researched and practiced spiritual technologies and teachers that can improve our ability to connect and experience Holiness or Deep Mystery.

“The root k-d-sh occurs nineteen times in Parashat BeHukotai, the last reading from the book of Leviticus, in which there are altogether 152 occurrences of this root. The Torah nowhere defines the concept of kedushah, what we might call in English “holiness” or “sanctity.” Nevertheless, the use of this root has developed extensively, so that today we speak of making kiddush on the wine, or of reciting the kaddish and the kedushah in the synagogue service, or of marrying a woman through kiddushin (the ring ceremony), and we behave as if we understand the concept of being kadosh (holy) which is present in each of these actions. We tend to forget that holy is a divine (transcendental) concept, and therefore, like the concept of G-d, is above human comprehension.”-Dov Landau

As a Jewish woman, as a mother, as a wife, as a sister, as a grandmother, as a friend, and as a daughter, taking a year off from my family and friends is a very intense thing to do. It will be a death of sorts. This is time of absence and death-like being away from those I love is a risk I am willing and need to take. I do so knowing that while it will be hard for those who love me and who I love, it can also be a blessing and an opportunity. Getting up close to and intimate with absence and death or separation is a very hard thing for most of us to do. Taking this path consciously, for me, and hopefully for those who will miss me, is a way to flow into and explore THE RIVER of space and time, beyond our physical bodies and all their coverings and ways and means. I’m looking intently towards and across that mysterious “River Jordon.” I have no desire to cross over yet—but I am very curious about the territory.

to be continued…..

~byline from the original piece published in the Mad River Union on August 13, 2014:

Nicole peeks across and around all kinds of corners, rivers and edges wherever she abides and she endeavors to speak of this as she walks along the way. Sometimes, she can be found in her home in Bayside, but you are just as likely to encounter her swimming at Big Lagoon or meandering along the aisles of your local health-food store.

1 thought on “Jubilee Part Five: Encountering Death Consciously

  1. Wonderful thoughts! I am excited to hear about your journey. I love that you combine Helen’s art into your story. I am looking forward to your next installment! I wish you a meaningful and adventurous passage.


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