Understanding Death

Nothing can compare to the thoughts and feelings we experience upon the passing of a close and loved one. The pain and helplessness are extremely raw, the anguish is devastating, and the separation is overwhelming.

At this time we wish to occupy ourselves with the correct thoughts and actions, and dutifully go through the rituals. Yet somewhere in the back of our minds we are very confused and have disturbing questions, not knowing how to resolve them or where to turn. The passage of time eventually dulls those feelings, but does not heal them, thus leaving us without any real closure.

This confusion is totally understandable, as death is one of the mysteries of life. Why do people die? More importantly, what happens when a person dies? Do they still have an existence? If so, what is it like?   Is there anything I can do that will be helpful and meaningful to them?

In order to comprehend one’s existence after leaving this world, it is crucial to first have a correct understanding of who one is while in this world. Who am “I”? When I say “I” who am I referring to?

Imagine you won the lottery. You are so very excited, extremely elated, and really on a high.

Let’s  ask the following question: Who is thrilled? YOU of course. But who is YOU? Is it your arm or your legs? Your eyes or your ears? Obviously not. It is YOU, the essence of your being.

To get this even clearer, let’s think about successful YOU who runs a mile a day, lifts weights, tells great stories, and who’s opinion is sought in a myriad of issues. One day you drive on the motorway and the car skids then hits the guardrail and flips over. The next thing you know, you wake up lying in a hospital bed with a nurse standing over you. She informs you that you have severed your spinal cord and will never be able to move a muscle in your body again. You try with all your might to move your hands and feet, with no results. You try to scream out, but you can’t open your lips. You can no longer do what live people do, and cannot even communicate with people.  You lie there and start thinking about your past, what you said and what you did not say, what you did and what you should have done. You realise that your thoughts and feelings are all intact.

Are you still alive? Yes. Are you as alive as you ever were? Yes. Even though your body is effectively dead, YOU are still alive. The essence of YOU is fully alive. YOU are merely the occupant of the body, who up until now had control over the body, and that has now ceased.

As demonstrated, the real YOU is not the body at all. When someone dies, it is just the body that dies and gets buried. The essence of the person remains alive as ever, because the essence was never the body at all. That essence is what we call the soul.

With this understanding we can move to the next level. When the soul of a person leaves the body, life continues for the soul, as alive as it ever was. There is no reason to think otherwise, because the soul never was the body to start with. It was simply the occupant of the body.

The question that begs to be asked  is: What is the next stage?

The next stage is that the soul is taken to account for its deeds of the time it occupied and controlled the body. It gets rewarded for all the positive accomplishments it did. In the Jewish belief system, this reward is unending and magnificent- more pleasurable than anything in this world *. (To get an appreciation of the meaning of the word “unending”, imagine a sand clock full of sand where just one grain of sand passes through once every hundred years. When the grains of sand finally finish, we haven’t even started, because the clock is turned over and starts all over again. That is a grasp of the concept of eternity)

If we understand this, we realise that the soul wishes it had done more and more good deeds. However, it is too late. Or is it?… Not really.  According to Jewish thought, there are two ways a soul can continue to accumulate good deeds even after leaving this world. The first way is through deeds which the soul set into action while in this world. For example if a person raised children on the path of  doing good deeds, or influenced people (through actions or money) to do good deeds, then the soul will continue to  amass these good deeds. The second way is if people do good deeds in memory of that person and thus “send parcels” to the deceased**.

In conclusion, when a close one passes away we miss them terribly. This is normal, and it should be this way. However we should internalise that the essence of them, the soul, did not die. They are still very much alive, and enjoying the reward of all their good deeds. In addition, we can help them by continuing in their good path by doing good deeds in their memory.

*This is a basic Jewish concept, mentioned in many Jewish sources. Just to quote one, Ethics of the Fathers 4:22.

**This is the reason for saying Kaddish and Yizkor and other practices


Rabbi Ahron Kramer

Leeds Kollel