This fall I am taking two classes with Winnipeg Center of Ministry Studies (an Anabaptist seminary) - Genesis and Death (actually my Death class is called Death, life and happiness but our teacher told us that he was forced to put in life and happiness). I have had one class of each so far and they both seem to be totally fascinating.
In my Death class our teacher read a chapter from Michael Wyschogrod's book, Abraham's Promise: Judaism and Jewish - Christian Relations, called "A Jewish Death in Heidelberg". It told the story about how a Jewish man died in Heidelberg. His Christian friends wanted to bury him next to the woman he loved (though never married) in a Christian cemetery. In fact he had expressed this wish (though he never left a will). The Jewish community objected to this and insisted the he be buried in the Jewish cemetery. They argued that being buried in a Christian cemetery is contrary to the Torah. This story raises several interesting questions. How binding is the desires of a dead person? What if their wish goes against their religious convictions?
Who has the authority to decide these matters? In this story the man had no family. So do his friends or does his religious community have the authority?
What does it mean to honor the dead?
Fulfilling the final wish a person is often seen as a way of honoring them. However this was the struggle. The Jewish man was apparently very Jewish (though he did have a falling out with the Jewish community). So is it more honoring to bury him in the Jewish fashion (keeping the spirit of who he was) or by fulfilling his desire?
These are difficult questions. I wonder if they are more difficult because I do not like really talking about death.