Stopping for Death

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The American culture shines in crisis–think about the firemen laying their lives down for hundreds and hundreds in the Twin Towers in NYC at 9/11. Think about the effort that has been expended in saving the one child who has slipped into a well–the hours of strategy and effort for the rescue of one precious life.

We shine at the time of death as well–trying to prevent it and then helping to pick up the pieces immediately after. What we don’t do well is in the weeks and months after death–that is the mourning process.

It is just so hard “To stop for death” and allow grief to do its marvelous, healing work. I love this poem by Emily Dickinson. She captures how we feel about death. How we refuse to stop for death; but it doesn’t matter, death stops for us anyway. And then she goes on poignantly to describe the depth and breadth of “eternity,” or the afterlife of death. 

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

The Jewish people have a deep understanding of mourning and treat it as a discipline. They know how to stop for death.

From death to burial is called “aninut.” Then for one week after burial there is the period called “shiva” or sitting. This lasts for one week, when the family mourns together in one place, sitting on low chairs, not speaking, covering mirrors, and not going out. The next period is called “shloshim” or thirty. It comes one month after death. This is when the mourner begins to edge their way back into society–each week they participate a little more in normal, social activities. After this month of grief comes the full year. And the dead person is remembered yearly from then on.

Living life in the “fast land” has robbed Americans of the depth of our rituals and ceremony in all facets of life. The truth is to be whole, to be complete, we must stop for certain happenings.

The discipline of mourning is essential to the vitality of life that goes on  after death.

“Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me… “

1 Comment

  1. Excellent, Bonnie. I learned to appreciate the Jewish mourning practices, too. We do indeed need to take time to grieve as this promotes healing.

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