“Everybody is going to be dead one day, just give them time.” Neil Gaiman
The best gift you can give your children is a well-planned death. None of us know the time or place of our final moments. But we all know this: we all will die. End of story. We all have an end to our story. And we do get to write the final chapter; we have the opportunity now to have a hand in writing that final chapter while we are alive.
In our Parsha VaYechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26, Jacob/Israel knows he is at the end of his life. His eyes are growing dim. And so he called his children close to instruct them as how to attend to his death. He expressed the who, the what, the where, how and why of his death plan. He explained it clearly, and with sincerity to those who will be left behind to care for him in death.
As we all should. Jacob was doing a mitzvah. A mitzvah too many in our society neglect to bestow upon family and friends. Thousands of years after the biblical period of Jewish civilization, too few of us are planning for our deaths. Death is something we fight in our society, not plan for. Planning is the mitzvah, especially since none of us know our final day or hour. A mitzvah for our families, who, like our tribal leaders, can fight viciously over even the most minor matters. And this leads to much suffering. Not for the person who died but for those who want to properly honor the deceased. These are the things you see as a Rabbi.
“When I lie down with my ancestors, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” He (Joseph) replied, “I will do as you have spoken.” Genesis 47:30
In the Torah, Jacob makes Joseph promise that both his soul and his bones will rest with the ancestors. The reality of his bones resting in the caves of the ancestors, back in Cannan, would require hundreds of years and total slave liberation. But they got there eventually—those old bones of Jacob. Joseph made a promise that was fulfilled by a future generation of Israelites, those who the new Pharaoh did not know, those who experienced slavery, and then, Thank God, liberation. Joseph commits, and Jacob can die in peace.
“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” Kahlil Gibran
Some do not care what happens to their remains after death. “Donate my body to science.” “Leave me to the vultures on the side of the road.” And others, like our ancestors, cared very much about where and how we were buried. In this story, in VaYechi, the bones are not buried. The bones are put to rest in an ancestral burial cave. Some in the Torah were buried. Burial has been our law for thousands of years, but today we also recognize the environmental and social impact of burial and have expanded our options. Today some Jews are turned to ash. Cremated. Some are exploring human composting. Some want to be buried in Israel. Some people want to be flown to a family plot “back east.” Some want to be put in a mushroom suit and become a fungus among us. There are so many options in our world today, and like our patriarch Jacob, we each have a voice in what will become of us.
It is not morbid to consider what will happen to your body after you die. It is practical. And ethical. And also an opportunity for humility and grace. We are part of a system. Once our souls depart, the rest of us remain and decay, as do all living things. We become part of the world. And we have a voice in how that happens.
My mother’s voice was clear. I want to become ash and bone. And I want to be spread out all over the world. She had a list of places she wanted her ashes spread. And one of those places was Israel. So now my mother’s bones are with her ancestors in the land of Israel. With Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Jacob and Leah and Rebecca, and too many to recount of generations after them.
For Me? I want to become a compost for a Jewish forest. A plot of forest that will be protected forever by the Jewish community. The parking lot will look like you are pulling up to a trailhead. And at the information station, there will be a huge wooden sign listing the names of all the people whose bodies have nurtured this forest. Our bodies are a gift back to the land. Land that is owned by no one. A place of silent souls and rich soil. I pray my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will walk the trails of this forest. Sing the songs of our people in this forest. Weep in this forest. Return again to this forest.
For Me? I want the video of Blind Melons’ song Rain to be played at my funeral. The Bee Girl video? It is a short story about living authentically and finding your people, and finding your joy. Watch here for a shot of life force:
For Me? I want a bench dedicated in my name at Marymoor Park, the best free-range dog park in the world. It is on the shores of Lake Sammamish. When my ancestors brought the first fruits to the Second Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, the native people of what is now Redmond, Washington, made a summer camp on the banks of the Sammishriver. Blue Herons nest in Marymoor Dog Park. Sometimes you watch a Blue Heron and a Bald eagle fight over the Heron's nest. All while your dogs swim and play in the river. It is a glorious place. A part of me will be there forever. That is why I want the bench.
That is it for now. If I knew my time was close, I, too, would draw close to my sons. I, too, would ask them to promise me a forest, a song, a bench. I, too, would bless each of them as did my ancestor Jacob before he took his last breath. This is my gift to my children. To share with them my words of blessing but also a vision of where I want my eternity to be and how I want my vision of eternity made manifest through honoring my life.
Jacob has 12 sons and a daughter Dina. He was the father to many, a parent to many. He was flawed, as are all parents. And yet he provides a beautiful model for our relationship to our deaths and how we share what we want with our families, our community.