“Somebody’s got to do it,” we muse when we hear about someone pursuing a career or activity we cannot fathom doing ourselves. Funeral directors, hospice workers, members of burial societies and others in contact with death get this sort of reaction on occasion. Or keeping our thoughts to ourselves if we come across such folks, we may fantasize asking them, “How on earth can you be doing this kind of work? Yeesh! Not me.”
In a recent talk, Dr. Michael Slater, president of the Kavod V’Nichum Board, which is a group that advocates for Jewish burial societies, reveals all the prior steps in his own journey to becoming a member of such a society. By following his logic from step to step, we come to understand how on earth he could voluntarily do things like wash a body. As we hear each step, the final outcome becomes something we can draw nearer to rather than cautiously back away from as if escaping a bear.
His first step was when he heard a family member at a funeral gently but honestly explain to his young children what was going on. Then at the house of mourning, Doctor Slater was surprised to run into people he had not seen for a long time, and even more surprised to see how comforting that was to him. As he subsequently thought more about the Jewish (and by extension “spiritual”) value of being present in the moment, he concluded that being present even in difficult moments like visiting with friends and family in the days after the funeral has lasting value and a poignancy and vividness all of its own.
Later on, Dr. Slater’s medical career necessitated dissecting and later washing bodies. This was another step to becoming comfortable with the idea of contact with the dead. Finally, with the death of a close friend in the Jewish community, he realized that he had been present for happy occasions in that community as well as funerals. But then he made the leap to another kind of being present: Why not be present between the death and the funeral? Why not comfort the family in that manner as well?
If you are a “death professional,” (how any human stops being an amateur and becomes a professional at this sort of thing is something else to ponder) or volunteer, you may want to review to yourself what hidden steps you traversed before it “made perfect sense” to become one. Not only will you become more secure in your understanding of what brought you to this way of being present. But if you share your insights, you will also model for others (O Reader, is that you?) that what seems outlandish at first to others is admirable and perhaps even doable after all.
I adapted this article from my September 2015 guest post in the Jewish Journal. The article was published at http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/youre_a_member_of_a_what