The title of this post is not something I would have expected to hear in Bel Air, CA in Los Angeles, ground zero for tummy tucks, face lifts, expensive manicures. And, yes, dyed hair. But Wendy Lupul of Laguna Niguel had it exactly right. Her observation is the perfect way to sum up my experience last week at Kavod v’Nichum’s 10th North American Chevra Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery Conference at the American Jewish University.
I’ve been to plenty of conferences, but this is the only one I’ve ever attended with a schedule packed from 7 in the morning until 10 in the evening, starting with shachrit (morning prayers) and ending only after the exhausted participants stumble off to bed after the post-dinner sessions.
You might think that a conference all about visiting the sick and dying, accompanying people from death to burial, and cemeteries would be depressing, but it was exhilarating.
First of all, a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about anything related to death and dying, so, for those of us who work or volunteer in these areas, it’s a big relief to be around others who are also comfortable talking about these things. There was a coffin at the front of the main conference room, which served as a reminder of how far I’ve come from the deep fear I had only about 4 or 5 years ago regarding anything having to do with death, to my current level of familiarity and comfort with it.
I also quickly realized that we weren’t specifically talking about death and dying most of the time. Most of the sessions had to do with living. We talked about transitions, and how we can help people make the transition from being healthy to living with a disability or illness. We talked about how to ease people through the transition from life to death, and how to help others cope with related transitions, such as from wife to widow or parented child to orphan.
We also talked about honor. We discussed how to honor a person, from the end of his or her life through the time of death and burial. Included in this discussion were conversations about issues that commonly arise, as well as less common challenges, such as how to proceed in the case of a person who is transgender (this may cause uncertainty, for instance, because the garments in which men are traditionally buried differ from the garments for women).
In addition, we talked about how to care for ourselves when we feel the stress that may be associated with doing this kind of work. There were workshops involving chanting, and movement, and even a workshop reminding us of the importance of adult play.
Although most of us spend most of our lives on the surface, engaged in light conversations about the weather, sports, or entertainment gossip, this conference continually pushed us to talk about things that are much deeper and more meaningful.
It was, to coin a phrase, about “keeping it real” and focusing on what is most important in life. And that, I suppose, may be why most of us didn’t bother to dye the grey out of our hair.