Death is the great Jewish question mark

Can somebody please tell me what Judaism believes happens when you die? I’ve heard so many different explanations it’s driving me crazy. But the specter of death casts a shadow over me, and I’d like some help understanding.

It’s entirely possible that the ground on which my apartment is built used to house someone’s remains. I live only a few blocks from Mission Dolores in San Francisco, and the graveyard attached to the Mission spread out far from the basilica. When the City of San Francisco exhumed hundreds of corpses and moved them out to Colma, it very well could have happened right here, where I’m writing this.

Jewish death is appearing on the DVDs I watch. On an older episode from “Six Feet Under,” an intense and flirtatious rabbi ends up counseling one of the main characters, a non-Jew with a serious brain condition. He asks her what Judaism believes about death, and she never really gives him a straight answer. The closest she comes up with is that in death you meet God, and that some people think that the experience of God is the same as the act of performing a mitzvah. But this exchange occurs while they are flirting, thus the rather hazy answer.

Mostly, I see death around me because my grandfather is on the edge of dying. He’s 93 and frail as can be. His heart is failing, and all the doctors can do at this point is keep him comfortable. Every time I see my parents’ name come up on caller ID, I cringe inside because I’m afraid that this one will be the call where they give me the news that he’s dead.

My grandpa is the last of my grandparents alive. He’s lived much longer than he — or anyone — expected him to. He outlived his wife and then his girlfriend of almost 20 years. He’s been ready to die on some level for a really long time.

When I ask him what he thinks happens when you die, he says “Nothing.” He says death is death, the end of consciousness. No soul, no heaven, nothing.

There are those Jews today who believe that all of the souls of dead Jews are waiting in limbo to come back to life when the Messiah comes. Some Jews believe the Messiah will arrive near Safed in Israel, and the Jews buried there will be the first to return to life.

I’ve also read that some Jews believe in a form of reincarnation, “the transmigration of souls.” However one lived in this lifetime, his or her soul returns to earth in a form fitting his or her conduct.

These are just two of many answers I’ve received to my question, and frankly, I don’t understand how one faith can have so many different things to say about the same topic.

There are some nuts-and-bolts parts of Jewish death ritual I think are great. The yahrzeit is a powerful tradition, and many aspects of sitting shiva are very appealing to me.

Beyond these basic practices, I must confess that it doesn’t surprise me that Judaism doesn’t have just one answer for the afterlife. What other religion is so willing through its multiple meanings to state that there is no simple answer to such a difficult question?

Part of me hopes that I don’t get some kind of definitive answer to my question because it’s hard for me to trust any certainty around death. It is the ultimate definition of finality and the unknowable.

I can see the appeal of believing that all Jews will rise from the dead, and that the soul is reborn in another body, but I can also see the appeal of believing that nothing happens after you die.

I think the idea of the great question mark is the hardest to face and maybe the one that feels the sanest to me. Because I would like to think that the ethical consequences of all of these theories would be the same. No matter what happens to your soul, you should live a good life now because it is right to help others.

That’s how my grandparents tried to live their lives, and I think that’s what I will tell my children when they ask me about this most troubling of shadows.

Jay Schwartz plays the marimba in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and a dog named Fred. He can be reached at [email protected].