You Think Interfaith Issues Are Only for the Living?

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Yesterday I attended a fascinating meeting of the Interfaith Collaborative–the group of professionals who conduct outreach to interfaith couples and families in the Greater Boston area and meet on a regular basis. This session, the first of its kind for the group, involved presentations by representatives of two Jewish cemeteries. If you thought that interfaith family issues end when life ends… think again.

We’ve covered death and mourning issues involving interfaith families pretty extensively in the past; there’s an entire section of our Archive devoted to the subject. But these presentations got into very nitty-gritty issues of who can be buried where.

The first presentation came from a representative of a Jewish cemetery established in the 1950′s, before there was much intermarriage. At some point they recognized demographic trends and decided to create a “section” in which interfaith couples could be buried together.

I’m not an expert on Jewish law, but my understanding is that in a traditional Jewish cemetery, only Jews can be buried. The ground in a Jewish cemetery is “consecrated.” I hate to say this, because it can be so off-putting to interfaith couples, but my understanding is that burying someone not Jewish makes the ground no longer consecrated.

I try to always be respectful to adherents to traditional Jewish law. There are many people who were buried in Jewish cemeteries with the understanding that they would be forever in a Jewish, i.e. consecrated, cemetery. Burying someone not Jewish there would violate that understanding, which wouldn’t be right.

Another aspect of Jewish law that deals with this issue, though, is that a divider that separates different sections of a cemetery–kind of like a mechitzah in a traditional synagogue that separates men and women–allows a cemetery to remain Jewish and consecrated, while also allowing interfaith couples to be buried together in their own section.

So the first presenter explained that his cemetery had added one section for interfaith couples, then another, and are now on their third. That’s all good. But he then said something about what happens when a couple wants to buy cemetery lots not only for itself, but for its children, which is not uncommon. If a two-Jews couple wants to buy lots for its children, they are allowed to do so. But the representative said that his cemetery followed traditional Jewish law about who is a Jew–namely, the child of a Jewish mother. So, if an interfaith couple wanted to buy, say, four lots, if the mother wasn’t Jewish, they would only allow the couple to buy two lots, because they wouldn’t regard the children as Jewish, and they don’t allow non-intermarried, non-Jewish people to be buried in their cemetery.

Oy! What if the children were raised as Jews and in the eyes of the Reform movement considered Jewish? In this cemetery, many synagogues, including Reform ones, have their own sections, and in those sections, their own rules apply. But in the “interfaith” sections, it would be an issue.

The second presenter was from a cemetery that was established in the 1990′s with interfaith couples and families specifically in mind. They have sections of their cemetery that are denoted Conservative, Reform, and “open.” In the Conservative and Reform sections, they follow the respective rules for who is a Jew. In the open section, they’ll bury interfaith couples–and sell lots to interfaith couples who want to buy them for their children. I’ve been to that cemetery–in fact, I own “property” there–and the different sections look the same; if you don’t know which section is which, you can’t tell by just looking.

These issues are only going to increase as there are more and more interfaith couples who are ageing. One of the things we’re going to do with InterfaithFamily.com’s Connections In Your Area system is start to list Jewish cemeteries where interfaith couples can be buried together, and Jewish funeral homes that will work with interfaith couples. Stay tuned for that.

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One thought on “You Think Interfaith Issues Are Only for the Living?

  1. One of the ways we get “around” this problem in Honolulu is to have the Reform Temple be the owner of a large percentage of the cemetary plots in the Jewish section of a larger cemetary, so families purchase their plot at a discount from Temple Emanu-El. Obviously, this only covers folks who are our members, but we sell to all congregation members in good standing.

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