Death is as prevalent as its sister, Birth, but the over-sterilization and removal from public view has made it taboo to ponder and discuss. It’s not usually until a loved one has passed or we witness some horrible tragedy that we choose to take a look at this part of nature’s cycle, as it pertains to humans. Death invites questions of grander spiritual things and religious theology, context that can add to our insecurity, depending on what brought us to considering the topic in the first place, and where we stand in it all.
Just as with Birth, Death belongs to the family, and not some cold, clinical, impersonal system. Similarly to Birth, I believe it is imperative that communities begin to bring Death home, to respect and witness this sacred rite of passage. When we intimately know the spiritual and physical journey of a natural process, we fear it less and can approach it with an open heart when it is at our doorstep. We make room for the deeper questions and larger mysteries, and are better capable of conducting ourselves with peacefulness and wisdom, rather than with stress, panic, or despair.
What is the journey of Death for the Human Soul, then?
“And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God, Who gave it.” ~ Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 12:7
I believe it is the separation of body and Soul, and the Soul’s literal journey to a different layer of reality, the raw presence of the Holy One, Divine Creator, which exists alongside, but outside of our earthly concept of age and time. This other “realm” is the same place from which our Souls are created and given whatever assignment they fulfill within the vehicle we call a body. While I don’t believe in continuous reincarnation (as in, I believe a Soul is only given one earthly vehicle; past life accounts have more to do with ancestral DNA imprinting, I think), I do believe that when our assignment is complete, the Soul parts and waits for the final earthly return into a newly built body, an era during which the Divine realm becomes one with the Earthly realm and the dead are resurrected for this “Heavenly” reign. (Daniel 12:2) Until then, the Soul “sleeps,” and as with the sleep we are most familiar with, our Soul travels somewhere beyond physical reach, able to be awakened to some level (Shmuel 1/1 Samuel 28), but we are not gone into oblivion.
Babies who have not yet breathed air (as in, still in the womb) and whose Souls ultimately detach from that body and stay within the Divine embrace, I believe, are sometimes asked to come back to the earthly realm and remain with that newer “vehicle” the next time around. But, to understand more of my beliefs around the uniqueness of the Soul and Birth, please read my article titled “Human Souls and Birth.”
Where do “heaven” and “hell” factor in to all this?
Well the Jewish concept of the afterlife is quite different from the Christian perspective that many are familiar with. Additionally, I can’t say I fully understand all the nuances of Judaism’s view, so that is a question best asked of someone who has attended Yeshiva. My general belief, as it stands, is this: while we spend our time on earth, we humans, all, do things that are godly and ungodly; we either turn our faces toward Hashem, the Holy One, or away from Hashem. When our bodies die, our Soul sleeps. Somewhere in that slumber, there is Divine Judgment — a holy and perfect accounting of all the godly and ungodly things we did during our time on earth. The ungodly things are painful and ripped away, the godly things are pleasant and remain, and we are essentially stripped down to whatever can withstand the Divine presence (i.e., the godly things).
Even with this understanding, we will (and should) still grieve and mourn, but we may also be better capable of seeing Death in its fullness and therefore process it more completely. Whatever beliefs you choose to embrace about Death, may we all take the time to address them before Death’s reality is forced upon us. And May Hashem bless us with a peaceful sleep, in the end.