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Death Cafe or Sacred Conversation?

To ask, as we do, how we want our bodies to be treated after death gives us the opportunity to learn what Jewish tradition has said for generations.
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Sixty-three year old woman with brain cancer in hospice care.
Sixty-three year old woman with brain cancer in hospice care.

A recent article in The Huffington Post described a new phenomenon called a Death Cafe, a place to discuss difficult questions connected to the end of life. This week the front page of the LA Times ran an article called "Passing Thoughts at LA's first Death Cafe." Death cafes began in 2004, when sociologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting pop-up "cafe mortals" in Switzerland." They have recently come to North America. Each cafe is led by a facilitator comfortable and knowledgeable about dealing with death.

Though I wouldn't use the term, a faith community should also be a "death cafe," a safe place to have the difficult conversations we all need to have about end of life decisions. Too often I sit in a hospital room with a dying comatose congregant surrounded by adult children locked in battle over what mom or dad really wanted. Sometimes the one most committed to heroic intervention is the child with the most unresolved issues; finally she or he can be the one who proves her or his love. But that moment is clearly a disastrous time to act out this unresolved family drama. Too often the time for the funeral comes with the adult child unclear about cremation or burial. Too often I see families totally destroyed because wills were not discussed openly in advance of death and one of the adult children is devastated by a perceived or real injustice, with no opportunity to work through the disappointment. Too often I see missed possibilities for healing old hurts through honest conversation.

Jewish tradition offers powerful tools for facilitating these conversations. One is an ethical will, a tradition that goes back to biblical times where individuals write a letter to those who live on after them describing the legacy they hope to have left them. The process of writing an ethical will is both difficult and powerful; it asks that an individual reflect on the meaning of his or her life. It is a document one writes and then rewrites years later, continually reviewing what matters and what is important. Writing an ethical will at age 50 helps a person think about what he or she needs to do going forward in order to be the person who can leave the legacy he or she describes -- and reviewing and rewriting again at 60 and at 70 and at 80 helps one continue to do the work that self-reflection demands. Sharing that ethical will with those who matter most as part of a ritual around a significant birthday can be the beginning of an important conversation.

Where better to have the conversation than connected to your synagogue and connected to ritual? Rabbi Elliot Dorff suggests that synagogues ought to incorporate into the Confirmation curriculum for 10th graders the requirement that they prepare an end of life directive before they get their drivers licenses. What a powerful way to remind young people that driving a car requires responsibility and that casual behaviors like texting or drinking can be lethal. What better place to confront the truth we all know but spend our lives trying to deny: each of us will die. One could argue that all spiritual traditions begin with this truth...and offer us spiritual practices to, in the words of Psalm 90, "teach us to number our days so we may acquire a heart of wisdom." The psalm challenges us to make every day count, to be present in every moment, to pay attention. And at the same times it reminds us that our lives will end, and it is also a spiritual practice to share with those we love how we want to die when that time comes.

If you are not part of a faith community, where do you start? One place is "The Conversation Project," a website that offers advice and even a game using playing cards with questions that can help a family begin the conversation. It reports data from a survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation (2012) that "while 60% of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is 'extremely important', 56% have not communicated their end-of-life wishes." It is data like that has led a huge coalition of organizations to support an effort to designate a National Healthcare Decisions Day which was marked earlier this week. Its webpage (NHDD) offers resources for individuals as well as strategies for organizing in your own community to facilitate these conversations.

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, these conversations are not called "death cafes" but rather "Sacred Conversations about End of Life Issues." They challenge congregants to ask: "What do we want others to know about our physical and spiritual care as we approach our death? What are the life lessons we wish to impart to others? What can Jewish tradition teach us about doing this with compassion and dignity?

And just as these conversations challenge congregants, the conversations also challenge Jewish tradition. To ask, as we do, how we want our bodies to be treated after death gives us the opportunity to learn what Jewish tradition has said for generations -- that our bodies are a temple and should be treated with respect. Jewish tradition assumes burial, but as a liberal Jewish congregation, more and more members of our community believe that treating a body with respect includes the possibility of cremation. That too is a conversation we need to have with each other.

All these are sacred conversations. As Ecclesiastes wrote: "There is a time for silence, and a time to speak." Now is the time to speak -- and to listen.

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