Thoughts from Outreach Workshop on Death and Mourning

Post by Ronnie Friedland, Web Magazine Editor:

I attended a fascinating conference, Comforting the Bereaved: Issues of Loss and Mourning in the Interfaith Family, an Outreach Training Institute program led by The Union for Reform Judaism, Northeast Council, which was organized and run by Paula Brody on Wednesday, March 28. The conference had varied interesting speakers who spoke about nuances of interfaith mourning I’d never considered before.

An intermarried woman spoke of two funerals she had attended recently, one for her grandfather, the other for her Jewish husband’s grandmother. The speaker, a non-Jew, mentioned that her family is not comfortable expressing their emotions, unlike her husband’s family, which is. These differences were manifest in the different mourning rituals for these funerals she attended. Her family was very comfortable with gathering for a family dinner the night before her grandfather’s funeral, then attending the funeral and then returning to their normal lives the day after the funeral. The long shiva period for her husband’s grandmother, and all the emotions expressed, made her uncomfortable, and she felt overwhelmed.

Jews-by-choice spoke of the emotional complexities of arranging funerals for loved ones from their non-Jewish family, how feelings they had had of ambiguous loss are amplified at the time of bereavement. In addition, one mentioned how a member of his congregation left a basin of water and towels outside his home for when he returned from the Christian funeral, and how affirming this was for him of his Jewish identity. Another mentioned the loneliness of loss for Jews-by-choice, who don’t have Jewish family members to attend shiva with them. One spoke of the comfort of having Jewish mourning rituals a requirement for him.

A Jewish grandmother spoke of the funeral for her non-Jewish step-granddaughter, and how painful it was for her not to be allowed to see the casket lowered into the ground, not to have that finality.

Rabbis spoke of difficult mourning situations they have been faced with–such as being asked to perform a funeral for someone who had converted to Judaism for 40 years and then returned to their Christian origins but wanted a Jewish presence at their funeral, and other comparable dilemmas.

One rabbi had sent out a survey to members of his congregation asking what they want in their eulogies, but realizes now that he didn’t take into account the complex needs of interfaith families and now needs to send another survey. In our packet was a very helpful survey for taking into account the needs of interfaith families.

A rabbi mentioned that at the time of death people need faith connections, and the responses they get from clergy can draw them into the religion or push them away.

A director of a Jewish funeral home spoke of trying to meet all the needs of her clients, but that these needs had changed dramatically over the last 20 years. One example was planning a funeral for the parent of a Jew and a Buddhist, and the Buddhist wanted Buddhist priests coming in with drums and bells… the director found a way in one instance to allow this in the service in the chapel, but not at the graveside service. In another similar instance, the director found a non-Jewish funeral home for the service with the Buddhist instruments so as not to disturb another Orthodox Jewish funeral.
Meeting the needs of traditional Jews, as well as the varied interfaith family needs, can be a challenge.

Stanley Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, spoke about the enormous demand for burial space for intermarried families. Land that had been set aside to meet the needs of these families for 35 years was sold in four years… Much more land is needed. His conclusion: When Judaism is made accessible for the 50% of unaffiliated Jews, they will utilize it.

Father Walter Cuenin, former pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians, in Newton, Mass., addressed the conference and mentioned something important for interfaith families to know: a new prayer has been added to the last rites given to Catholics–it is a prayer for those who had not been baptized and shows that anyone can get into heaven–they need not have been baptized first.

Fr. Cuenin also spoke of similarities between Jewish and Christian rituals: All Souls’ or Saints’ Day is an annual remembrance of the dead, on Nov. 1 and 2. Catholic family members also light candles for the deceased on the anniversary of their death, as do Jews.

Finally, vignettes were discussed, including:

  1. A Jew-by-choice is in your congregation. When his father dies, how will your congregation support him? Will it allow him to purchase a memorial plaque in the synagogue? What if the deceased was his cousin or sibling, as opposed to his father?
  2. What if a Jewish congregant dies and her non-Jewish husband is left to mourn her? How will the congregation help him? Will the husband be counted in the shiva minyan? Will the husband still be considered part of the congregation?
  3. If an intermarried couple, new members of the congregation, lose a child, would the rabbi co-officiate at the funeral with an Episcopalian priest?
  4. What if the family of a single Jew-by-choice wants a non-Jewish funeral for that person? What can the rabbi do if there is no Jewish family? What if there is a Jewish child?
  5. What if a Jewish child wants to mourn Jewishly for his non-Jewish grandfather?

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