When a death is announced, there is mourning. Hidden from the public view are the preparations involving the deceased’s last wishes, the burial plot, and ensuring that the transition from life to death is conducted according to halachah. “These are topics that most people may not care about,” said Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, founder of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK) at a presentation last Sunday at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. “Most people do not join this chevrah,” referring to the volunteer Jewish burial societies.
Having observed his first taharah (washing) of a deceased at the age of 17, Rabbi Zohn became familiar with the customs of burial at a relatively young age. Recognizing that many Jews were ignorant of such customs, and seeing the rising popularity of cremation, he founded the NASCK in 1996. Since then, it has grown into a national organization that educates the klal on preparing for the inevitable. “We wake up every morning reciting Modeh Ani. We recognize that we are not here forever. It’s a sense of gratitude and privilege that life itself has tremendous value. We live to be able to serve Hashem so that we will be zocheh to Olam HaBa.” He added that, as we have faith, so does our Creator, in giving us each day of life with the expectation that the day is spent productively.
But when death is expected shortly, it is important to know how life will end, so that it is done on terms acceptable by halachah. “The agent or proxy decides your medical fate. From a human perspective, you want to know that your wishes will be followed.” With so many “variables” that one may not anticipate, Rabbi Zohn urged listeners to write a “halachic living will,” which can be enforced by the state, in relating to how the body is handled and buried. “Think carefully about the people in your circle. Usually it’s a spouse or children,” but when the children live in other states, or have different approaches towards observance, if at all observant, then that proxy should be reconsidered. “Proximity is important. I’ve had people put me down as their rabbi, but will I be available? Make sure that your proxy is aware.”
Rabbi Zohn addressed orders of not resuscitating and removal of feeding tubes as being tantamount to suicide. But that’s one opinion. It depends on each unique situation and that the living will and proxy should be reviewed every five years, as one’s health and relationships change.
On the selection of burial plots, Rabbi Zohn quoted a line attributed to leading poskim: “Eretz Yisrael is not a big cemetery,” in reference to many diaspora Jews who choose to be buried there. “Does our shul have plots? Do you have access to a plot where your parents or siblings are buried? Where do you want to be buried?” He put to rest the common misconception of purchasing plots at a young age as a bad omen. “It’s a s’gulah for arichas yamim.”
One should consider the plot’s location, whether the neighboring spaces honor shomer Shabbos individuals, whether the cemetery has non-Jews buried there, elevation with potential flood in mind, whether monuments are allowed, as some cemeteries only permit headstones while mourners unintentionally walk atop the graves. “The more information you have, the better. Make sure that your family knows the options. It’s better to have a fallback plan than nothing at all.”
As it is important to know one’s final resting place, one can have peace of mind by joining a chevrah kadisha that handles the arrangements. The membership fees are higher with age, as it is with life insurance. A century ago, there were hundreds of burial societies run by landsmen from the same towns in the old country. “Is a burial society still active? Can one be buried in a family plot?” These are among the many questions that Rabbi Zohn tossed at the audience to get them to think about the end of life.
He concluded with a pitch about the South Florida Jewish Cemetery near Boca Raton, which opened this past January. It is designed to provide an affordable burial in an area that has a sizable Jewish population. “Sixty percent here would have chosen cremation.”
The lecture was moderated by Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, rav of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. The topics brought up by Rabbi Zohn brought out many questions, likely the start to many more conversations on end-of-life issues in the Jewish community.
By Sergey Kadinsky