August 22, 2019

Loose Ends and Unfinished Business by Rabbi Janet Madden

Our days are full of unfinished business—things that we need to deal with or work on, “to do” lists of tasks that we have not yet begun or completed, our awareness of things that we have not yet dealt with, tasks or objectives that await our attention. And although death ends life, death also ushers in a new round of unfinished business, new decisions to be made and business to transact. The business of death last for months after the death has occurred: notifications to friends and associates, winding up business affairs, dealing with insurance companies, financial institutions and utility companies, canceling appointments, sorting through and disposing of possessions and property, filing tax returns for the deceased. For the newly-bereaved, coping with the amount of unfinished business, the legal and financial matters that need to be tidied up, the personal loose ends that need to be tied up, and all that remains to be settled at the end of life and after death can seem unending and push grieving survivors into overload. The business aspects of death awaken us to the reality that no amount of planning or efficiency can prevent survivors from having to deal with the secular aspects of death, with the truth that unfinished business is part of every life and every death.

Even the death of Jacob (Genesis 47:28), often referred to as the prototype of the ideal, “good death,” because Jacob seems to anticipate every possible loose end—he calls his sons to his deathbed, blesses them, criticizes them, advises them, tells his own life story and provides direction about his burial—reminds us that death inevitably gives rise to yet more unfinished business.  But Jacob’s agency ends with his death. His sons will have to take care of the actual business of Jacob’s burial and in spite of his deathbed pronouncements, dealing with his legacy will fall to his survivors.

Fittingly, the issue of life’s unfinished business is specifically addressed in the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, (in Hebrew, Devarim —“Things” or “Words”), the book that we read during Elul, the closing month of the Jewish year. Elul is the time when we are preoccupied with completing what has been left undone, asking for forgiveness and preparing for a year and a new start.  Parshat Shoftim records the questions and advice that military officers are to pose to their troops, “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him return home, lest he die and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another marry her”  (20:5-7).

Although these questions are posed to soldiers about to go into battle, they turn our attention to continuing life, not to impending death. They remind us that to be human is to anticipate the next day and next event in our lives. They poignantly highlight the pain that comes with contemplating death, with realizing that when we die, someone else will complete our unfinished business.

But it’s inevitable that in spite of our best efforts, at the end of life, as at the end of every day, there are things left undone and uncompleted. As we adjust to the ways that the death of someone important to us has changed our lives, we must negotiate emotions, rituals, legacies of memories and possessions and property and our own (re)definitions of who we are now and who we will be in the future that we now envision. The death of someone important to us prompts us to ask ourselves how we want to live now, how we want to be remembered, what we want to change, what makes our lives meaningful. The death of someone important to us ends one way of being and begins another, challenging us to clarify our priorities.

In On Living, her collection of anecdotes and observations about her chaplaincy work, Kerry Egan tells stories of hospice patients that focus on the unfinished spiritual business that some people resolutely avoid and others strive to address. What Egan learns as the result of working with hospice patients and their relationships is, she writes, that “The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.”  This spiritual work, of course, is not so easily accomplished; these are lessons that we may need to address over and over, especially as we reassess our lives in the aftermath of the death of someone important to us. In the midst of all of the unfinished and distracting material business that death presents to us, Egan’s wise reminder of the spiritual work of being human challenges us to consider the most important ongoing unfinished business of our lives.

Rabbi Janet Madden earned her PhD in literature from The National University of Ireland. A writer and ritualist, she is Rabbi of Providence Saint John’s Health Center (Santa Monica, CA) and Visiting Rabbi of The Oahu Jewish Ohana (Honolulu).

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden


Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session, held mnthly. On the third THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is January 18th with a discussion of Limmud UK by Holly Blue Hawkins.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact us at,, or


Taste of Gamliel Series

Register now for our 2018 series, Your’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: Jewish Practices of Remembrance, features Rabbi Stuart Kelman, Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, Maharat Victoria Sutton, Rabbi Yonatan Cohen, and Jacob Klein of Keshet. They will be discussing topics such as Customs on Visiting the Grave, Understanding the Mourners Kaddish, an Alternative Yizkor Service, Disenfranchised Grief, and Trans Day of Remembrance, all relating to remembrance and memory.
The series begins Sunday evening, February 4, and will continue on Sunday evenings, generally one session per month, at 8 PM Eastern time and 5 PM Pacific time. Each session runs approximately 90 minutes.

February 4: Maharat Victoria Sutton
March 4: Rabbi Stuart Kelman
April 8: Jewish Trans Day of Remembrance – Jacob Klein
April 29: Rabbi Yoniatan Cohen
May 27: Rabbi SaraLeya Schley

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and participants can see each others’ live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, we mute participants, ask them to raise their virtual hands with questions, and call on and unmute participants when appropriate. There is time for questions and discussions at the end of each program.
Learn from the comfort of your home or office. We use a computer accessed Zoom platform with phone-in options available. It is interactive, and each session is recorded, with access provided to registrants. We’ve been teaching using this model for eight years (more than 300 classes).
Registration for Taste of Gamliel is mandatory to access the sessions. The sessions are free, but there is a suggested minimum donation of $36 for the entire series.
Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions. To register, click here: register.


Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of Gamliel Continuing Education  Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms. The next course will be April 25, May 2nd and May 9th, and will look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin. Registration is required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Contact us for information, by email, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at


16th annual Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference and Gamliel Day of Learning

Mark your calendar and hold the dates! June 3-5, 2018, in the Washington D.C. area.
Click here to register

Location – The conference will be at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland (just north of Washington, DC)

Dates and Times – The main part of the conference will be from noon on Sunday June 3 to 1pm on Tuesday June 5, 2018. There will be tours and hands-on workshops on Sunday morning.

The Gamliel Day of Learning will be from Tuesday at 2pm through Wednesday at noon.

Who Should Attend? Consider attending the conference if you:

  • are interested in the fields of community organizing, consumer advocacy, bikkur cholim, chaplaincy, rabbinic texts, thanatology, hospice care, grief therapy, funeral direction, cemetery management, and legacy planning
  • recognize the importance of liturgy and ritual in ensuring that the spiritual dimension of the end-of-life continuum is appreciated, and that the work of the Chevrah Kadisha is done with full regard for the respect and dignity of all involved
  • want to learn more about the entire end-of-life continuum – dealing with life-threatening illness, legacy and preparation of ethical wills, preparing for death and at the time of death, care for the body- taharah and shmirah, care for relatives and friends, funeral and burial, mourning, grieving, remembering and providing comfort – with underlying themes of communal obligation, care for the poor and elderly, consumer protection, and Jewish continuity.
  • believe it is essential to shift the culture surrounding continuum-of-life issues in the Jewish community – from an attitude of denial and neglect around death, to a more open attitude towards death that includes increasing awareness, acceptance, and healthy integration into family and community life.
  • want to participate in the development of a strong Jewish corps of professionals and volunteers to become communal leaders who work to inspire, support, organize, teach, and advocate for the full range of Chevrah Kadisha work in synagogues and communities.

Workshop Leaders – If you are interested, or know someone else who might be interested in leading a workshop, suggest it to us with a short paragraph of explanation – send to

Registration – Advance registration rates are extra-low, but they are only available until February 28th. Register early to get the best rates, and to help us plan.
Organization Pricing – is available if three or more members of an organization are attending the whole conference and the organization has paid membership dues of $180. You can cover the cost of organizational membership right on the registration form. Even if you don’t have three members attending the conference, we appreciate your organization’s support as a member.
Books – This year you can pre-order and pre-pay for books right on the registration form.

Exhibits – If you, or someone you know, would like to exhibit at the conference, let us know by sending us an email –

Conference Timing 
Noon to 10pm on Sunday
7am to 10 pm on Monday
7am to 1 pm on Tuesday.
Meals – In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six supervised Kosher meals as part of the conference registration. Please let us know if you have allergies or special dietary needs.
Flights – Many cities have direct flights to National (DCA), Baltimore Washington (BWI) and Dulles (IAD).
Ground Transport –  Direct connections to the Metro are available from National Airport. We’ll update the website mid-January with additional ground transportation options.
Hotel – We have negotiated a great hotel rate at American Inn. Contact them at 301-656-9300 and give them group booking code KNG or email or phone our hotel contact Minoli– who is at extension 111. Our group rate is $139 plus 13% tax per room per night for singles or doubles. There are a limited number of doubles.
Home Hospitality – will be available. Let us know if you are interested.

Shabbat – If you would like to be connected to a family for Shabbat dinner, home hospitality, and synagogue services, let us know.

Refunds: 90% of the registration fee will be refunded if you cancel in writing before May 1; 80% before May 15; 50% May 15 or later, only if you have a really good excuse!



Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (



If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

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If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.