Reading Death

Cover of Mourn A Child.To Mourn a Child: Jewish Responses to Neonatal and Childhood Death
Edited by Jeffrey Saks and Joel Wolowelsky
KTAV Publishing House, 2013

Kaddish: Women’s Voices
Edited by Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas
Urim Publications, 2013

In the Eastern European school of superstition, if speaking about death is inviting it, then reading about it is like building your own coffin. No one wants to talk about what is inevitable, especially if it involves nonexistence. I say this because even though I spent years researching and writing about death myself, when the book To Mourn a Child: Jewish Responses to Neonatal and Childhood Death arrived unsolicited, I put it, unread, on my desk stack. The cover has a photo of an empty swing; the book’s title hangs between the chains, suspended like a life freighted with expectation that has suddenly stopped.

The book sat for months on that stack, until I finally turned the spine around to face the wall. I could not bear to look at the title in the morning as I studied or typed. Life is heavy enough. Read to escape, I told myself. When it comes to reading death, I’m done. Genuck. Dayenu. It’s enough.

This was my exact thought when Kaddish: Women’s Voices appeared at my door. What is with all of us? Let’s spend more time living. That didn’t even make it to the stack. I looked over the table of contents and then it went straight on the shelf.

I assume many reviewers did the same thing when they first received my own book on death, Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death. A few days after Happier Endings was published, the vice president of Simon & Schuster called: “By the way, there’s something I forgot to tell you. Death does better in paperback.” He was preparing me for the lack of royalties that would be coming my way and for the likelihood that Oprah and Ellen were not going to be calling soon.

Cover of Kaddish: Women's Voices.But there are moments when we overcome our aversion to facing death and can find solace and wisdom in writings on it. We look for writing that can help us articulate our pain or our primal fears of mortality. As the yartzheit (death anniversary) of a close friend approached, I pulled out Kaddish to see if I could locate myself on its pages. True, I never said kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for my friend, but I think it might have been easier to say it than to answer “amen” to her teenage son’s prayer. Hearing the adolescent jumble of kaddish’s numbing words rattled me each time. Kaddish is a positive affirmation of life and can have the ironic effect of feeling more painful at times than ignoring death altogether.

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