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Planning for the Future

By Rabbi Saul Goldman

Caregivers are lonely people. The more fortunate ones may be surrounded by close family and friends, but many Caregivers are left to struggle with the pain of a loved one by themselves. My pastoral visits to hospitals and nursing homes introduce me to wives, husbands and children standing vigils along the bedside of individuals in a game of hide and seek with the angel of death. Too often, we remain firm in our conviction that death is the final defeat; it is our enemy. Actually, my faith suggests the hope that death is not an end: merely a transition. It remains one of the last taboos of our culture in which eternal youth and materialism are the measure of our success as persons. Consequently, death is often left as an afterthought.

People do make final arrangements, but these arrangements are usually matters of caskets and gravesites, rather than the content of the funeral itself. Usually planning for the future involves legal and financial planning; we consider what we shall bequeath to our children and grandchildren. These issues are too often merely matters of property and money. Yet the very fact of our illness and eventual death is a reminder that what is immortal is not eternal. Matter is temporal; every thing is finally fossilized except the human spirit. Indeed, as both individual and Caregiver witness the physical container of life deteriorate, it becomes important to focus upon the human transcendent content of that container - the soul.

The funeral can be a service of healing and transition: a celebration of life and a loved one's sacred and cherished ideals and values. Painfully absent from the final arrangements is consideration and planning in a meaningful and respectful service. In community it appears especially obvious that this aspect of life is often ignored or minimized. Funeral directors will ask a family, do you belong to a congregation? If the answer is negative, then a clergyman will be selected from a list. Yet we will be a bit more careful in selecting a lawyer or physician; sometimes one invests more research in choosing a hairdresser. Caregiving is shepherding. It is accompanying someone on a journey (at least part way). If that journey is to be a good one, then neither the pain, neither the anxiety nor the anticipation of its destination can be trivialized. Illness is a journey on a spiritual plane rather than a topographical one. In order to do this successfully, we must be courageous and loving. We must dare to speak of our fears and sadness; we must discover that our shared spirituality provides other modes of communication. By exploring our feelings about separation and our thoughts about immortality with our loved ones, we establish a meaningful context for this journey whose destination is the final reunion that Judaism and Christianity believe await us.

At the funeral, we realize that pain and anguish are no longer part of our loved one’s life. Instead, we turn our attention to how and why that life was lived and what lessons can be derived from their journey into eternity. The funeral service becomes the last element in caregiving because it demonstrates the manner in which we honor the human spirit as much as we tend to the body, which temporarily houses that spirit.

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