Death need not disorient us

6 March 2010
Lucien Hudson says that only a serious consideration of death frees us to enjoy and marvel at the life we have

Around 70% of people say they want to die at home, yet around 60% currently die in hospital. Why is there such a discrepancy between hope and reality? The speed of life in the 21st century creates a momentum that makes us oblivious to death and dying. Now more than ever, death has the power to disorient us. The time has come to "out" death and dying, and this is why the organisation of which I am chair, Liberal Judaism, has joined the Dying Matters coalition.

Over the years we have heard – rightly – about the importance of sustainable communities, but not nearly enough about caring communities. Part of the challenge of caring communities is to bring "dark" subjects such as death into the light, to expunge any sense of taboo so that individuals can consider their wishes while the sun shines rather than be rushed into a decision as the end nears.

This challenge binds us together across the generations. We welcome the recent assisted dying guidelines because there are times when the language of crime and punishment is inadequate and the penalties of law add nothing to the penalty of loss. But as Liberal Jews, we continue to wrestle with the concept of assisted dying and it is healthy to hear different voices in the debate.

All lives are worth living. None should feel burdensome. Caring communities, where all attend diligently to the role of "brother's keeper", create a safeguard against a situation in which the weak, the disabled, the ill and the lonely can feel that the world would be better off without them. In practical terms this means that our communities run bereavement support groups and visit the sick. It means we give each other the opportunity and courage to speak about that which we would otherwise avoid, and that we value the contribution of experts in palliative and end-of-life care.

Our tradition teaches us not to imagine death in the abstract but in the concrete. Jewish rituals for death and mourning do not seek to disguise the horror, but rather to create an environment in which all feel able to confidently confront and comfort those who mourn while according respect to the deceased. Just as the rituals of shiva (the seven-day period of mourning for close relatives) and kaddish (the prayer in praise of God customarily recited by mourners) encourage us not to feel uncomfortable about confronting the mourner, so should we encourage each other to confront our own death, before it happens.

The focus for Liberal Jews remains, above all else, on life. As it is written in Deuteronomy 30:19: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, so that you and your children may live."

To an extent we can only truly choose life once we have "chosen" our death. By "chosen" we do not mean that one should select one's death as one would shop for something on the high street. Death cannot be packaged in such a way – it will never be tamed, neutered, declawed or rendered banal. This is part of the mystery of life. By "chosen" we mean accepted, and planned for.

Only a serious consideration of death and of dying and of pain is what frees us to enjoy and marvel at the life we have. This applies both spiritually and practically. "L'vayah", the Hebrew word for funeral, literally means "accompanying". Caring communities provide an assurance that, just as we accompany each other through each stage of life, so can we rely on each other for company towards our final journey.

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