Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Happiness for the Expected
Last February, Ana Swanson, a reporter for The Washington Post wrote an article entitled “What people around the world mean when they say that they’re happy.” The article begins with the account of an 86-year-old Chinese woman who has purchased all the articles of clothing she wishes to be buried in, from shirt and pants to purse and earrings. The woman actually bought this funeral garb ten years ago. Not only is she perfectly healthy today, but she is also perfectly happy that all these details are in preparation for her death.
Swanson then writes, “The idea that getting ready for one’s funeral can be ‘a happy thing’ shows just how much ideas of happiness can differ from country to country.” The quotes around “a happy thing” indicate the author’s belief that preparing for death is, in no way, shape or form, “a happy thing.”
I disagree. I will explain.
In his book From Beginning to End, Robert Fulghum muses over a photograph of a man sitting on a folding chair in a cemetery.
“He is sitting on his own grave. Not because his death is imminent – he’s in pretty good shape, actually. And not because he was in a morbid state of mind – he was in a fine mood when the picture was taken. In fact, while sitting there on his own grave, he is reviewing his life confronting finitude – the limits of life. The fact of his own death lies before him and beneath him – raising the question of the when and the where and the how of it. What shall he do with his life between now and then?”
Last March, I celebrated my 69th birthday. Several years ago, I promised myself that sometime after my 69th birthday, I would write down instructions for my funeral and burial. My motive was simple. My father died at 69. Having reached the same age strikes me as the right time for me to deal with my own mortality.
This summer, I wrote out specific instructions regarding all the Jewish rituals and observances I request. Before I continue, let me state that I am, thank God, in good health. I would confidently release my medical records if I were running for president. I am not running for president, thank God.
Alice and I have discussed this. She knows where I have placed these instructions for when the time comes. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to rethink and revise these instructions for many years to come. In the meantime, there is nothing for my family to do until my time comes. When my time comes, my instructions will tell them what to do. All of this makes me happy in its own unique way.
It will spare my family from making important decisions at a time when emotion clouds judgment. It will relieve them of any concern that they are making the right choice. It will be a final act of love from me to them. And following the instructions will be a final act of love from them to me. This should make all of us happy, even in the midst of life’s unhappiest moments.
Why not for you too, and for your family?
The path for the pursuit of happiness also leads to the grave. But even there, even there, happiness can be discovered.
Jewish tradition imbues every ritual and observance with love. With love, every mitzvah brings a measure of happiness. No less, every mitzvah of Kibud HaMet, “Honoring the Dead,” softens the saddest moments with a most sacred kind of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is an eternal path, guided by the Eternal One who has promised eternal happiness from the beginning and to all eternity.