Author Archives: Audrey Gordon

Audrey Gordon

About Audrey Gordon

Audrey Gordon is assistant professor of community health science in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, and is an expert on current thinking about death and dying. As a graduate student, she worked with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She is the co-author of the book They Need to Know: How to Teach Children about Death.

A Psychological Interpretation of the Laws of Mourning

Excerpted with permission from “The Psychological Wisdom of the Law” in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

When death occurs, Jewish law demands that immediate plans be made for burial. This is in accord with the ancient belief that it was a great dishonor and disrespect not to inter the dead. Making funeral plans serves as a necessary activity for the mourner at the beginning of the grief process. The mourner reaffirms his concern for the dead through actions which serve at the same time to overcome his wish for identifi­cation and incorporation with the lost loved one. The onen [a mourner from the time of death through the funeral] through his actions experiences the fact that he is "not dead," not still and lifeless, as he may consciously or unconsciously feel or wish himself to be.

During this first period of grief there is an intense desire on the part of the bereaved to do whatever he can for the de­parted. Jewish tradition meets this need by placing the respon­sibility for all the funeral arrangements on the mourner, not by shielding and excusing him from these tasks. It even releases the onen from the obligation to perform any positive religious­ commandments, which on all the other days of his life are bind­ing, so that he may devote himself instead to these burial pre­parations and arrangements.

Facing the Reality of Death

A funeral according to halakhah [Jewish law] emphasizes that death is death. Realism and simplicity are the characteristics of the Jewish burial. In this respect it stands in clear contrast to the American funeral ritual, which, as Dr. Vivian Rakoff has said, "is constructed in such a way as to deny all the most obvious implications." Such modern American customs as viewing the body, cosmetics, elaborate pillowed and satined coffins, and green artificial carpeting that shields the mourners from seeing the raw earth of the grave are all ways in which the culture enables us to avoid confronting the reality of death.

On Being with Those Who are Dying

Excerpted with permission from “The Psychological Wisdom of the Law” in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

The concept of wisdom(hokhmah) in the Bible is not that of sage philosophy or metaphysical abstraction. Wisdom in the Bible means doing what is right in each situation. It is in this sense that the Jewish perspectives on death and the Jewish mourning practices are “wise.” They are wise because they pro­vide a total framework within which [humanity] learns to accept death, to mourn completely, and to live again fully.

visiting the dyingWhen the family and community are faced with the pros­pect of the death of one of its members, Jewish law reminds us that “a dying man is considered the same as a living man in every respect.” But in American culture today, dying is treated as if it were a separate realm of existence. America is essentially a death-denying society; consequently we treat the dying dif­ferently from the way we treat the living. We avoid them, or avoid honest communication with them. We try to spare them the problems of everyday living, and we thereby deprive them of its joys. The dying person lives alone in an artificial envi­ronment created by those who do not wish to cope with the fact of death and its inevitable call to every living being.

Halakhah [Jewish law] forbids this dishonest approach. The dying per­son must be treated as he was always treated, as a complete person capable of conducting his own affairs and able to enter fully into human relations even unto death. Further, the Jewish tradition of never leaving the bedside of the dying is of im­mense value, not only to the dying person but also to those about to be bereaved. How helpless and how guilty we must feel when we hear of the death of a loved one, especially if no one was there to ease the fear of uncertainty and the pain of separation.

All kinds of questions spring to mind from the wellsprings of guilt: “Was everything done that could have been done?” “Why didn’t the doctor or nurse get there sooner?” “What could I have done to prevent this?” “Did he suffer?” “Why was he alone?” And underneath these questions lie another series of questions: “Will I suffer?” “Will I be alone?” “Will anyone care for me though I didn’t care for him?”