The Unclaimed Dead

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, and begins with the death of Sarah.

After the ordeal of having to nearly sacrifice his son, Abraham returns home to the death of his wife. (Some commentators connect the two events, saying Sarah died when she heard about what Abraham had done.) Abraham then begins the difficult process of making arrangements, something we all find ourselves in the middle of after a passing. The grief is there, but the mourning can not fully start until the arrangements are made.

The same is true in our contemporary mourning practice. One is not considered a “mourner” until after the burial. Between death and burial is an intermediate time known as aninut during which one makes the necessary arrangements.

Abraham sets out to make the arrangements. Having left his ancestral home, he is living among the Hittites in Canaan.  He goes to see the local chieftain, Ephron ben Zohar, to inquire about purchasing a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron knows of Abraham’s reputation as a leader and man of God, and so offers to gift him the cave. Abraham insists however on paying for it, and a deal is struck for Abraham to purchase the cave, and he proceeds to bury Sarah within.

There is much that can be said about the merits of a sale versus a gift. Gifts imply an ongoing relationship (a subtle expectation that the gesture of a gift will be returned at some point) while a sale is a clear transaction. Gifts are open ended. A sale is final.

So while some will read this about land claims, it perhaps has to do more with the need to make “final arrangements” when it comes to mourning a loved one. Part of our mourning practice is to provide some formal act of transition between experiencing the death of a loved one and the beginning of the mourning process. This is the function of the funeral and burial. Sometimes circumstances require a service at a later date, or unconnected with burial. But the need to do right by our loved ones so we can begin to heal is a powerful motivator, the need to honor those who have died with ritual and acknowledgement is a necessary process. Abraham’s actions demonstrate this.

Two weeks ago I had the honor to participate in a commemoration organized by Interfaith Works in conjunction with the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. It was a memorial service—held in conjunction with All Souls Day/Dio de los Muertos—for all the unclaimed dead this past year. These were the people who did not have anyone to care for their bodies, or unbelievably, those whose families did not want to take responsibility and walked away.

The ceremony felt very much like a tikkun, a repair. To leave the dead unacknowledged felt like a tear in the fabric of what is right. These seven people did not have anyone to ritualize their passing, did not have anyone to offer a prayer or some words. Since this usually falls to the family and friends, and there weren’t any, it then falls to the community to do so. We, like Abraham, insist on making the arrangements for our honored dead.

I was asked to offer a eulogy, an interesting prospect for people I did not know and for whom there is no one to fill in the details of the life lived. I opened with the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk. And then here is what I shared:

We recall the names.

Names are often what we leave behind. A name etched on granite, on a headstone, on a wall, printed on paper.

Or a name etched on our hearts, on our minds.

We know the power of names. Our ancient biblical ancestor Abraham, as we know him now, but his name was originally Abram, his name changed to Abraham, father of many nations, when he was granted by God with the covenant.

His grandson Jacob, also in covenant with God, whose encounter with an angel in the middle of the night resulting in a blessing and a change of his name, from Jacob to Israel, “one who wrestles with God”, a name that will come to define a people for millennia to come.

The power of a name.

Think about your own name. Maybe you were named after someone at birth. Why were you given the name you have? What hopes and dreams were meant for you when your name was bestowed upon you? What family history is wrapped up in your last name? Do you have a nickname? Did you change your name? Did you choose your name, perhaps after some significant life event.

For we know that a name is much more than a name. A name is a life, a life of meaning.

We come to remember these honored dead. Defined, as we remember them here, only by their names. We do not have the stories that made up their lives. But the name is only an entry way into understanding their life.

These people: Annette Paula Emerick, Edward Harvey Epstein, Cleveland Anthony duBois, Jordan C. Silver, Juanita K. Hinchliffe, Christoper J. Rabe, Larry G. Ryan. Someone gave them the name that they have. Someone bestowed upon them this blessing of a name. What was in their minds when they did so? What family history was in their last name? Was the middle name “Harvey” after a beloved uncle? Or what is the story of the “Hinchcliffe” family? Someone thought and cared to bestow upon a name. They are not just individuals but members of a family, a lineage, a heritage.

And as we think about these beloved dead, let us not just stop at their names. Let us think about the person who gave them the name, who held them in their arms and whispered their name. Or used their name in scolding them, telling them to cut it out. Or who called out their name in fear and panic and reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street.

And let us remember the fact that they were called by this name by family and friends. Spoken as an invitation to get a beer after work. Or called out in joy by a young niece or nephew. Or spoken softly by a beloved partner.

Their bodies might not be claimed at death, but throughout life their lives were claimed by anyone who sought them out by name.

It is in this way we can bestow our love and empathy upon them. As we recall what it is like to be called by our names, the love shown when our name is spoken by someone, the pride and heritage we carry when we sign our surname, we can project that same feeling upon these honored dead as we call their names.

And just as they were claimed in life, they are claimed in death. By calling their names. This is what we honor here today. The blessing of their names. The blessing of their lives.

The need for ritual at the end of life is so important, whether carried out by a loving husband, as Abraham did for Sarah, or by a faithful community, as we did for the unclaimed dead of Thurston County. It is in this way we give honor not only to those who have died, but to those of us left behind. It is both a final, and a first, step in the healing process. All lives are thus claimed.

Shifts in Meaning

One of our quests as individuals is to make meaning within our lives. That is one of the purposes of religion, to frame moments of time and infuse them with the understanding that we are part of something greater than ourselves, that what happens to us is a part of who we are as individuals, that we have the ability to grow and change. 

Making meaning is not rationalizing, about saying “everything happens for a reason.” It doesn’t. It is about fully integrating the event into our life’s narrative and perhaps emerging from the challenging episode with some new insight or learning so that when we enter the next stage of our journey we are better prepared, or more aware, or have a different outlook. 

Easier said than done. It is mightily hard to do, especially when it comes to the stumbling blocks we face. 

Having recently come out of a serious illness, I have struggling with this. The events and circumstances of my recent illness were a whirlwind as they were going on. Now, as people approach and say how scary it was, and as I read about the rarity of meningitis and its not insignificant mortality rate (plus the rate of impairments for those who do survive), I reflect on the seriousness which was my situation. And while I have come out of the other end of it and escaped danger, I still worry about my condition (am I more forgetful since the illness or am I imagining that?) and I still struggled spiritually with what it all means. 

On the spiritual side, when someone is stricken with a serious illness, and then recovers, there are two poles one can lean towards: the illness or the recovery. Focusing on this illness-asking why did I get sick in the first place-leaves one in a place of vulnerability, of the fleeting nature of the world, of the complete lack of control we have when one day we are healthy and the next day we are not. Focusing on the recovery-on I was very ill but I recovered-brings one to a place of gratitude, of appreciating the preciousness of life and all it contains. And I admit, for the past few weeks I was stuck in the former, and was focused on how vulnerable and weak I felt, and was depressed about the turn of events. 

Until last week. I was attending a conference back east, the alumni retreat of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship in which I participated last year. I had planned to go for a while, long before I got sick, and was able to make it to the conference. It was a tremendous experience of learning from great teachers and colleagues on a wide range of topics. 

I found myself in a workshop lead by a wonderful colleague, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who is a neighbor to the north in that she serves a congregation in Vancouver, BC. In the workshop she pushed us on the idea of meaning making through our ability to examine events, particularly a chain of events, and discern any links or connections, a concept called synchronicity. 

We were introduced to this text by the Jungian psychologist Janet Dallett: 

Discontinuous events are usually though of as chance occurrences. In many instances this is sufficient explanation. Sometimes, however, we come up against happenings whose coincidence in time does not appear to be random, even though there is no causal relationship between them…In synchronistic occurrences the connecting factor is meaning rather than causality.

In the workshop we had the opportunity to discuss in hevruta(study pairs) experiences where we might have seen synchronicity operating in our lives.

At first this was hard. I couldn’t see beyond the past four weeks of hospital, medicine, bed rest, headaches, etc. But then I realized where I was, sitting in a retreat center thousands of miles from home. I had made the plans to go east months ago, but just a week and a half before the trip I didn’t think I would make it. While I did not have any medical restrictions on flying, I was still quite low energy, and I thought the trip may be too depleting. I had even contacted the organizer and told her I may not make it.

But in the days leading up to when I would fly I was feeling stronger and stronger, and while I was still a bit nervous, I felt much better than I did even that week and a half ago, and so I boarded the plane. The trip was fine, the conference was restorative, and I was glad I went.

Each morning we gathered for minyan, for a shacharit(morning) service. The first morning was Monday, a traditional day for reading of Torah, and I thought that I was ready tobentch gomelGomel is a blessing recited, usually in the context of a Torah service, by one who has escaped danger, recovered from an illness, returned from a long trip, given birth or some other experience which in some way carries risk. I had an aliyah to the Torah and then said the words: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who bestows good things on those in debt to You, and Who has granted me all good.” And the community responded, “Amen. And may the One Who has bestowed upon you good, continue to bestow upon you good.” Reciting this beracha, in a room filled with friends and colleagues, people who share my rabbinic path, in a room which radiated compassion and care and connection, was truly powerful.

So then later in the conference, sitting in the classroom with my hevruta, I drew together these two experiences into a whole. The timing of my illness allowed me to still come to the conference. If I had gotten sick a week later, perhaps, I would not have made it to the retreat. But the arc of the illness allowed me to make the trip, and be in that room, and offer that blessing, and transition from one who is ailing to one who is fully in recovery.

And here is where I shifted from one pole to the other. Rather than focus on my vulnerability and weakness, my recitation ofgomel at that time brought me to that place of gratitude. And I realize this is a better place to be.

Perhaps I was weakened physically by the meningitis. Indeed, the working theory by my doctor in the hospital is that my neurosurgery from a few years back may have made me more susceptible to contract meningitis, and thus he suggests I be more vigilant in keeping my sinuses and nasal passages clear. Plus that and general wellness is again a concern. But I hope to emerge from it stronger spiritually.

Not everyone makes meaning the same way. And again, it is not easy. But the ability to reflect and self-reflect with the goal of emerging from our life’s events with some new insight, with some shift in how we see ourselves and the world around us, is important and a blessing. It is another good thing that is bestowed upon us.