For a man who runs a mortuary and memorial park that arranges about 1,500 funerals a year, Len Lawrence spends a lot of his time thinking about the living. In particular, he thinks about those who have suddenly lost a loved one and are caught completely unprepared for the many decisions that revolve around the ritual of burial.
“You shouldn’t have to make decisions at that moment,” he told me when we met the other day. “These are times when all you want to do is grieve.”
Unfortunately, Lawrence, who is general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, is up against human nature.
Who wants to think about their death while they’re still alive?
Who wants to take the time to pick out a plot and a casket, fill out forms, make a down payment and decide on the specifics of his or her own funeral?
This is a challenge for all mortuaries and cemeteries, including places like Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, Eden Memorial Park and many others. Their core mission is to honor the dead and comfort the living, and planning ahead is a crucial part of that process. The problem is that most people simply have no taste to plan for their death.
As a result, mortuaries have been on a mission lately to get us to “pre-plan” our funeral arrangements.
To reinforce this point, Lawrence brought out the heavy artillery. He showed me a printed message from Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi of Sinai Temple, which purchased Mount Sinai about 50 years ago as a service to the community and provides lay leadership and guidance.
True to form, Wolpe went back a few thousand years:
“The first bit of ground that a Jew owned in Israel was burial ground. After Sarah’s death, Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah. He did not buy it for Sarah alone. He bought it for himself and for his children and even grandchildren.”
In other words, Abraham did not want his descendants to be caught unprepared; he was setting the example that we must think of death before we die.
As Wolpe explains, “The negotiations in the Bible to buy the land remind us that in moments of grief it is difficult for the survivors to have to face the additional responsibility of arranging for a funeral and a burial. Abraham took the trouble to ensure that his descendants would not have to face that trial.”
But the rabbi takes it one step further. This pre-planning activity that Abraham modeled for us, he says, is really a deep expression of love.
“In expressing our love, we often have to do things that are difficult. That is part of what loving entails—we face hard things as parents, as siblings, as spouses, as children, so that those we love can be spared.
“By planning for the future today, you spare those whom you love the worry of details piled upon the anguish of loss.”
In short, it’s as simple as saying to yourself: “I know I’m going to die one day, so let me plan my funeral now so my death won’t add another burden to the ones I love.”
Simple enough. And yet, our reluctance to face our own mortality is so deep that it’s even prevalent with people who know they will die soon.
Rabbi Carla Howard, who runs the Jewish Healing Center Los Angeles (JHCLA)—an organization whose mission is to provide compassionate and spiritual care for those with serious illnesses and other life crises (such as gender issues and divorce)—told me it’s not uncommon for dying patients to avoid reality.
“I see it all the time,” she said. “People are just spooked by death, no matter what the doctors tell them. They have a hard time facing the end.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that if dying patients have trouble facing their own mortality, healthy people would be especially reluctant to do the same and make plans for their own funeral, no matter how helpful that would be for their surviving loved ones.
Still, beyond all the obvious benefits of “pre-planning,” Howard sees a bigger and deeper picture when it comes to the sensitive issue of contemplating our own passing.
Maybe because she’s had so much experience helping people navigate through life crises and traumatic journeys, she thinks there’s a compelling reason for all of us to be constantly mindful of our mortality.
“The more you think about your death,” she said, “the more it can enrich your life. Living with a continuous awareness of your mortality reminds you of how precious and meaningful every minute of life is.”
Personally, I prefer that take on death to the expectation that there’s a pleasant afterlife awaiting us. That might be comforting to contemplate on a deathbed. But when I recently attended the funerals of local giants Arthur Stern and Shimon Erem and heard about all they had accomplished in their lives, I thought not of an afterlife but of this life—and what I myself might accomplish and leave behind on this earth.
As a man who sees funerals every day, Len Lawrence, said to me, “I’m so surrounded by death that I’m always thinking about life.”
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.