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Jewish Journal

Speaking to the Dead

by Susan Esther Barnes

November 13, 2013 | 12:00 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

Jewish tradition isn’t clear about what happens to a person after he/she dies, but it is clear we are supposed to look out for the feelings of the dead person. Part of the ritual of taharah, for instance, in which the body is ritually washed, dressed, and placed in a coffin, is an apology to the dead person for anything those performing the taharah may have done to offend or upset him/her.

Some say the spirit of the person stays with his/her body from the time of death until burial. Because a dead person cannot study the Torah (although it’s not clear to me why they can’t), we are allowed to read Psalms while sitting with a dead body, but we should not study Torah while doing so. Nor should we do other things near the body which the dead person cannot do, such as eat or drink, because it might make them feel bad.

Some Talmudic passages speak of what we may or may not do at a cemetery, including an injunction against wearing a tallit in a cemetery, again, so as not to make the dead person feel bad about something they cannot do. These discussions imply that, perhaps, even after burial, the spirit of the dead person may still be present in the vicinity of the person’s decomposing body.

Indeed, it is common among Jews and people of other cultures to visit the graves of loved ones and to speak to them. There are certain days, like the anniversary of a person’s death, or the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when it is common for people to visit the grave of their loved ones. This, too, implies the person’s spirit may still be near the grave.

Interestingly, there are other places where we sometimes speak to the dead. For instance, in many synagogues, there is a wall where the names of dead loved ones of congregants are inscribed on plaques. Often, the living will go up to one of the plaques, touch it, and sometimes whisper something to the deceased. Does this mean we think the spirit of the dead person may also hover near his/her plaque? Or do we think somehow the dead, like God, can hear us no matter where we are?

Now, modern technology has allowed us to take this idea one step further. I have a friend whose mother died about two years ago. She showed me an email her brother had sent recently, with their dead mother as one of the recipients. Apparently, her email address is still valid, and he copies her on emails he sends which he would like her to see. Do we believe the dead have access to their email accounts, even if they can’t respond? Why not, if we believe they can hear us no matter where we are?

Not only can we and do we speak to the dead, but another effect of modern technology is the dead can speak to us, as well. Some people save outgoing or incoming messages their loved ones left on their answering machine before they died. A local disc jockey has been airing blooper calls for decades, and I’ve heard of at least one family who listens to the recording of the blooper call of their deceased loved one, just to hear his voice.

Many people have videos of their deceased loved ones, which they can watch whenever they want to see and hear that person again.

In some ways, these activities can be a helpful part of the healing process. In some ways, I wonder whether, when we speak to the dead in these ways, we’re just fooling ourselves. I wonder how much of it is healthy, and how much of it is a potentially harmful refusal to let go and move on. I suspect the answer is different for each of us.

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