Sex, Death and Taxes: What Does Religion Say? Death

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Stanford University

University Public Worship

27 July 2008/24 Tammuz 5768

Sex, Death and Taxes:  What Does Religion Say?


(Genesis 23,1-20; Leviticus, 10,1-3)

            It was a decision that could only bring agony.  Two weeks ago, following much soul-searching and national discussion, Israel participated in a prisoner exchange. In exchange for the bodies of two young reservists, Sergeant First Class Ehud Goldwasser and Staff Sergeant Eldad Regev, kidnapped by Hezbollah two years ago, Israel released five prisoners.  One of them was a reviled terrorist who had killed four policemen, before brutally murdering a young father and his four-year old daughter. Indeed, Hezbollah boasted that they had captured the two Israelis soldiers with this very trade in their sights.  Predictably, Hezbollah greeted the released prisoners with a heroes’ welcome, displaying all the trappings of triumph[1]. Israelis were overcome with mourning. Hezbollah did not confirm their deaths prior to the handoff.  But Israelis understood, from the injuries they sustained upon capture, that it was unlikely that they were alive.  In fact, they had already been declared dead in Israel. Everyone grasped what was likely to, and did ultimately transpire in the swap. Terrorists for soldiers.  Life for death.  Why would Israel agree to such a Faustian bargain, one that could only embolden further brutality? What could balance those scales?  Only a longstanding promise to honor the service of their citizenry, only an abiding adherence to the religious obligation to honor the dead could explain or justify this painful decision.  For the Israeli Defense Forces, for Israel as a nation, for Jews as a people, burying and mourning the dead is a sacred obligation, and while the cost of doing so, in this case, was very dear, many voices cried out that the soul of the country was at stake in keeping faith with this sacred obligation.

Jewish tradition is explicit about kvod hamet, honoring the dead, and one of the ways that honor takes place is through an appropriate burial.  Proper burials have been a concern of the Jewish people as far back as the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Bible.  In order to insure a proper burial for his wife Sarah, the stranger and sojourner Abraham negotiated with the Hittites for the Cave of Machpelah.  The townspeople magnanimously offered a resting place for Abraham to bury Sarah; there was no need to pay for the property. But Abraham insisted that he wanted to pay for it—and pay for it, he did, at top dollar.  He wanted it to be properly deeded in perpetuity.  He wanted it to be undeniable that a place of eternal rest would indeed, be eternal.  He wanted to be certain that, although Abraham and Sarah wandered for much of their lives, they would never be uprooted in death.

Abraham recognized the power of a resting place. Abraham knew that how and where he and Sarah were buried conveys volumes about who they were and what they valued. So it is for us as well.  In her book, The American Resting Place, Marilyn Yalom provides, through our resting places, stories about who we are as Americans and what we value.  She tells that country folk from Mississippi still have the habit of asking newcomers, “Where do you bury?”  That simple question contains a host of others about identity—Where do you come from?  Who are your kin?  Where do you call home?[2]

Where do you come from?  Who are your kin?  Where do you call home?  What do you value?  How do you hope to be remembered?  Death and burial are the Rorschach blots of our lives, and of what we want to be revealed about ourselves.  Sometimes what they convey gives us pause.  Do you know about Gina Gray and the Arlington National Cemetery?   Arlington itself is one of the most evocative icons of our national identity—the name alone conjures humble patriotism and pride, the magnitude and majesty of heroism, the selfless “last full measure of devotion”.  But along with those lofty ideals, for Gina Gray, Arlington now also evokes politics and public opinion, manipulation and meting out access.  Gina Gray asserts that last month she was fired from her position as Public Affairs Director at Arlington because she challenged new media restrictions which had been imposed on the funerals of the Iraq war dead, even when the families of the fallen granted permission for the coverage.  Previously, when families agreed, the media had been permitted to be stationed close enough to hear the prayers and eulogies and to film the presentation of the folded flag to the next of kin.  But under the new rules, the media was placed fifty yards away, too far to hear or to photograph the funerals.[3]  A grieving family disturbed by the new rules said that their entire town mourned the loss of their native son, but they could not all travel to Arlington.  Having the funeral covered by the media enabled their whole community to be present at the funeral. But such coverage also reminds a distracted nation of an unpopular war whose costs have been all too invisible for many of us.  Reminiscent of the prohibition against filming and photographing the flag-draped coffins of soldiers returning for burial, those who imposed the new restrictions are loath to call attention to the cost of that war.  They prefer the antiseptic and the invisible.

While this particular decision may have been about the dissonance between the reality of war and the illusion of peace, Yalom tells us that the impulse to create distance between life and death is not a new one in America.  Early burial places were in the center of the city. Parishioners walked through the burial markers in the churchyard on their way to worship.  But by the turn of the nineteenth century, people began to believe that city burial grounds were a source of contamination. They dug up bones and moved them to new burial sites on the outskirts of the city[4]. In the past, relatives and friends lovingly prepared the body for burial in family parlors as a final act of kindness–until the inception of the funeral industry, when undertakers began to use chemicals and cosmetics to prepare the body to rest in expensive and ornate coffins. The distancing and estrangement from death that began with moving burial places out of sight continued through the twentieth century.  With the development of Forest Lawn, perhaps the best-known burial place in America, the denial of death reached its apex. In Forest Lawn, flat bronze plaques and replicas of famous statues dot the sweeping landscape. There, the “Disneyland of Death” was born.  In the shadow of Hollywood, “death was represented as a transition to a sunny sphere where one awoke amid angels and long-departed family members”[5]­ Death at Forest Lawn was the ultimate fantasy experience.  The philosophy of Forest Lawn’s founder Hubert Eaton is emblazoned on a huge stone wall tablet, “I believe in a happy eternal life…I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness.  It is to be filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers, in contrast to traditional cemeteries containing misshapen monuments and other customary signs of earthly death.”[6]

While most of us probably find Eaton’s airbrushed view of death a bit much, we nevertheless assume a fair amount of distance from death in our daily lives.  Even our language reflects this distance.  We speak of “passing away” rather than dying.  We commemorate those we have lost by gathering for “celebrations of life” rather than for funerals.  Undertakers are now morticians.  Ashes are “cremains”.  And if our language keeps death at arm’s length, how do we offer our own presence for those who are grieving?  More and more, we don’t know how to comfort mourners.  We don’t know what to say, what to bring, how to act.  We expect people to move on, to go back to work, to return to normalcy.  We want them to shield us from their deep sorrow. And when we are the mourners, we chastise ourselves for not getting over our losses more quickly, for not getting on with the program of our overscheduled lives.  After all, we don’t have time to grieve.

When my closest friend was a psychology graduate student, she sustained a tragic loss.  Her foster son–a tough, funny, Laotian refugee who had experienced too much suffering and sorrow in his young life, committed suicide. His death was as far from the clean, sunshine fantasy of Forest Lawn as one could imagine. Every decision was messy.   He had been raised a Buddhist, but he attended in a fundamentalist Christian church.  My friend is a secular Christian, married to a secular Jew. Where and with what rituals could they honor him.  What did Buddhism say about cremation? Could they donate his organs? Where should they bury him? Let alone the questions of how to explain his untimely death to their young daughter.  My friend’s classmates in the psychology program steered clear of her.   They didn’t know what to say, or how to help.  They were made intensely uneasy by the complexity and tragedy of this death.  And if psychology students, studying how to be a helping professional, couldn’t handle grief, how much the more so people with less training and willingness to care for others?

If psychology and its proponents do not always help us with diminishing the distance between death and life, then what about religion—the place where the cycle of life is made the most explicit? Dr. Michael Mendiola is a professor of Christian Ethics at the Graduate Theological Union and a former Catholic priest.  He describes how pervasive is the distancing from death, even within the Christian Church.  Dr. Mendiola teaches that within the Christian story there is a persistent and ambivalent tension.  On the one hand, human sadness and loss is present at death—the loss of self, agency and the world, the loss of community and even, potentially, the loss of God.  All of these are so often experienced in the face of death.  But on the other hand, Christians affirm a theology of resurrection, of death transformed, symbolizing the eternality of life and the defeat of death[7].

Dr. Mendiola argues that death stigmatizes; and because it makes us uncomfortable, we linger over it as little as possible.  He quotes the strong words of Christian ethicist William May in his essay, “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience”. “The attempt to cover up death in the funeral service is an unmitigated disaster for the church, preceded and prepared for by the church’s failure to reckon with death in its own preaching and pastoral life.  Many persons have said that they have never heard their minister take up frontally in a sermon the question of their own dying.  This state of affairs once again, is not entirely the fault of the professional.  People tend to expect from the church service an hour’s relief from the demons that plague them in the course of the week.  In this atmosphere sermons on death would seem intrusive and unsettling.   Better to avoid them and protect this hour from everything that jangles the nerves—even though the service comes to an end and the demons must be faced once again on Monday, fully intact, unexorcized and screeching.  The melancholic effect of this arrangement is that the church offers a temporary sanctuary, a momentary respite, from one’s secret apprehensions about death, but inevitably they take over once again, without so much as a candid word of comfort intervening.”[8]

This absence, this silence can be found in the bible as well. In today’s Leviticus text we read of the death of Aaron’s sons. The Bible notes that when Aaron receivedword of his sons’ death, “Vayidom Aharon”, “And Aaron was silent.” This silence speaks to the enormity of death.  In the face of losing two sons in the same moment, no words of theology can comfort; no explanation can provide solace.  But if Dr. Mendiola and Dr. May are correct, Aaron’s silence speaks as well, to a radical break in communication, to the utter loneliness that accompanies death. “There but for fortune” we think, and too often, it causes us to turn away, to distance ourselves from tragedy. With our fear of death comes the presence of isolation, the loss of words as a means to connect.  Silence begets isolation, and isolation, so often, begets enduring distress.

I see this in the student grief and bereavement group that I lead together with Counseling and Psychological Services and the Residence Deans.  This group is so important to the students because in most of their lives here at Stanford, about grief and mourning, they experience only silence.  That they mourn is a terrible and isolating secret.  There are so few of their contemporaries who carry the burden of being mourners, of knowing loss in their young lives.  The students are uncertain when to reveal to a potential friend that a parent has died.  They struggle with how to answer when a dorm-mate innocently asks how many siblings they have.  The reality of loss that so pervades their lives is invisible to others.  In their day-to-day lives, they weary of explaining who they are.  Vayidom Aharon.  And so, like Aaron, they are silent.

If we are to tell our secrets, if we are to break our silence, if we are to bridge the distance, if we are to embrace death as the part of life that will eventually come to us all, then we must begin to seek models of harmony between life and death.

We lost such a model this week, when Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch succumbed to cancer.  Professor Pausch gave a poignant “last lecture” a few months after receiving his fatal prognosis.  That lecture, viewed around the world by millions on YouTube and turned into a book that has remained on the best-seller list since its publication, inspired millions.  He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time, and one of three “persons of the year” last year by ABC.[9]  He received this recognition because he broke the silence—and by doing so, he embodied how to live with wonder and joy. He spoke directly yet simply of the opportunities of life even as he refused to exile death.

Marilyn Yalom and her photographer son Reid journeyed from South Carolina to Hawaii, from Chicago to New Orleans, describing and depicting the “tombstones we live by”[10] But through their travels, they singled out one particular cemetery that moved them profoundly.  This burial place was in the Amish country in Pennsylvania, in a field enclosed by a whitewashed wooden fence, filled with evenly spaced, carefully crafted tombstones.  The same family names, found on similar stone after stone spoke of continuity–a community burying their dead in the same hallowed ground generation after generation.  The tranquility of the burial ground harmonized with the pastoral surroundings.  Yalom writes, “Here, a two-acre rectangle reserved for the dead was part and parcel of the countryside, a familiar setting for those who had spent their lives laboring in the fields and preparing the fruits of the earth.  The only sounds we could hear were the clop-clops of an occasional horse and buggy.  Such was the stillness of the scene that I imagined skeletons underground stirring to the vibration of the passing carriages.”[11] This deep silence that Yalom describes was borne not of dread, distance or discontinuity; rather it was a companionable silence, the silence of familiarity, acceptance and respect. Death here is not feared, but recognized as part and parcel of life. The dead were their neighbors.  Indeed, their living takes place in close proximity to the dead.  In the homes in the Amish countryside, there is a room to lay out the bodies of the dead, and doors wide enough for pallbearers to carry coffins in and out.  Local carpenters construct the coffins.  Friends and neighbors dig the graves.[12]

While we, busy at Stanford might find this harmony difficult to replicate, what we can take from Pausch’s last lecture and from that quiet burial place is the understanding that keeping death at a distance does little to enrich our lives.  Indeed, when we refuse to exile death, we come closer to embracing life.

As we reflect upon death and resting places, let us remember that the life we find so priceless grows yet more imperishable when we bridge the distance between life and death.  Let us break the silence of Aaron even as we absorb the silence pervading places of eternal rest.  Let us find comfort—and inspiration—in our own awareness of death and in our own celebration of the richness of life.  Amen

[1] New York Times, Wednesday, July 16, 2008 and Thursday, July 17, 2008

[3] Washington Post, Thursday, July 10, 2008, and Monday, July 14, 2008

[4] Yalom, p. 43ff

[5] Yalom, p. 225

[6] Yalom, p. 225

[7] Dr. Michael Mendiola, Panel discussion on “Death in Different Traditions”, Pacific School of Religion, April 2003

[8] “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience”, William F. May, On Moral Medicine, Stephen E Lammers and Allen Verhey (eds) Eerdmans 1987/repr 1989

[9] New York Times, July 26, 2008

[10] Yalom, xi

[11] Yalom, p. 106

[12] Yalom, p. 107