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Facing Death

I’m a rabbi. As such, I deal with death frequently. I officiate at maybe five funerals a year. I spend a lot of time at graveyards (compared to your average American). Death is something I think about and talk about professionally. But I don’t have to deal with it in my own life very often.

Until now. Somehow, over the past three months or so, I’ve found myself dealing the loss of a number of people in my life. My friend Paul died in April, while I was in Boston spending time with my grandfather who was in hospice. My grandfather died at the end of May. And my college classmate Elinor passed away last night, following a lengthy battle with cancer. All in all, that’s a lot of death (putting aside the three funerals I’ve already done this year).

It makes me reflective. I find myself thinking about how long I’ll live. Certainly no one knows when they’ll die (unless, like Elinor, they are able to plan the moment), but somehow I always think about my own death as somewhere in the nebulous–but distant–future. After all, people my age don’t die of natural causes. . .

Except that as I get older, and age into my forties, more and more of my contemporaries do die of natural causes. Part of that is just the nature of statistics. The longer you live, the greater the chance of dying of natural causes. And as I get older, the people I bury get closer and closer to my own age. Usually that doesn’t strike close to home. This spring, however, it’s beginning to feel personal.

Elinor, Paul and my grandfather represent exactly three generations. My grandfather died at age 91. Paul in his early 60s. Elinor in her early 40s. Death is an equal opportunity employer.

All of which has me feeling just a touch reflective, a touch melancholy. Buy while I am yet above the ground, I will celebrate the day. I will lift a glass of wine to the memories of loved ones who have passed, and savor the flavor of life.

4 comments to Facing Death

  • Kathleen Robinson

    I was just in my home town with my mom last week. We went to see my father’s grave which I had not seen in a few years. He was 84 when he passed in 2004, and would have celebrated his 90th birthday on June 26, 2011. While there I also visited the graves of my high school math teacher, Paul Kennedy, who died in a motorcycle accident on March 31, 1973, 6 weeks before I graduated, and 4 classmates who died together in a tragic car accident in 1972. Again, 3 generations of people close to me. I lost my sons’ father in December 2010, and my husband in December 2005. My mother will be 80 years old on 11-11-11 this year, and I wonder how much more time I will have with her. I’l sorry for your losses, David, and I thank you for this piece.

  • The death of friends my own age hit me harder than the deaths of my grandmothers. My grandmothers had lived their lives, while I wasn’t ready to lose them, they were ready to go and there was a certain amount of time for me to prepare for their passing. But the people I knew who died young died suddenly, they had a lot of life left to live and a lot of people who had intertwined their futures with theirs, there was a lot left unresolved. And it never seems to get any easier. I find myself thinking about the future, looking at that section of the alumni magazines, and wondering how I will handle the inevitable deaths of so many people I love.

  • This was very heartfelt and well written, thank you for sharing, David. I’m sorry to hear you’re having a pretty rough year – hang in there.

  • Zoe P.

    Autumnal equinox is an appropriate time to meditate on death. I’m sorry for your recent losses.

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