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Mixed marriage between Jews and people of other faiths raises questions about the application of Jewish rituals and privileges to the non-Jewish relatives(1). These questions can arise when a death occurs even after decades of harmonious family life. Among the concerns of mixed-married couples are the following issues surrounding funeral practice:
The responses to these questions are a summary of American Reform Jewish opinion expressed throughout the twentieth century (2).
Question #1 - Cemetery Burial
It is accepted practice to bury a non-Jewish spouse in a Jewish cemetery. The opinion of Reform thinkers is that the entire cemetery is not consecrated ground, but rather only the individual grave where a body rests is sacred. When others disallow the burial of a non-Jew in a Jewish cemetery, they are adhering to custom, not law. The Talmud, or body of texts that comprises Jewish law, (Gittin 61a) states that for the sake of peaceful relations, we may bury the not Jewish dead. Thus, Reform practice has been to permit relatives who aren't Jewish to be buried in Jewish cemeteries provided that there be no non-Jewish symbols on the person's grave marker. Generally, clergy of other faiths are not permitted to officiate at the interment in a Jewish cemetery.
The concept of a Jewish cemetery is an extension of Jewish communal identity and cohesion. It is, therefore, desirable for Jews to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Yet, when a Jew is buried in a non-Jewish cemetery, a rabbi may officiate nonetheless.
Question #2 - Who Officiates for a non-Jewish Spouse?
If a spouse who is not Jewish is a practicing member of another faith, a clergyman of that faith officiates at the church or funeral home. If the interment for the deceased is to be in a Jewish cemetery following the funeral, a rabbi officiates at the graveside. If a spouse who is not Jewish has been part of Jewish family and communal life, but has never converted, a rabbi may officiate at the funeral and at the interment, if such was the wish of the deceased.
Question #3 - Observing Jewish Rituals for Those Who Are Not Jewish
Jewish mourning rituals are observed for a deceased spouse, parent, sibling or child. If the (not Jewish) deceased stands in one of these relations to the mourner, the mourner should observe Jewish mourning customs. Such practices are intended to support the living and to help them express their grief. They also serve to honor the memory of the deceased by those to whom they were beloved. Kaddish--the prayer extolling God that is said by mourners--then, may certainly be recited for those not Jewish. Converts to Judaism may say Kaddish for deceased relatives who were not Jewish.
Question #4 - Participation in Funerals
Jews mourning relatives and friends who were not Jewish may attend funeral services held in a church or funeral chapel. Jews may serve as pall bearers, and may accept an invitation to speak about the deceased. In a Roman Catholic funeral, the Eucharist (Communion) may be included. Of course, Jews do not participate in receiving communion, nor do Jews kneel during the service. In certain Protestant denominations, the funeral is an occasion to witness for Jesus, with less emphasis on the life of the deceased.
Participation by those who are not Jewish in a Jewish funeral should be limited to serving as pall bearers, and, if desired, sharing in the eulogy.
In Jewish tradition, burial of the dead is sometimes referred to as Hesed shel emet, true loving kindness. This term expresses the idea that what we do for the dead is the most sincere and selfless act of caring we can perform, since the dead cannot repay us. Burying relatives who were not Jewish in our midst and expressing our grief through Jewish mourning practice is no less an effort of true loving kindness. The act of Hesed shel emet stands as a memorial to relationships in life which bespoke love, devotion and caring. Further, our openness promotes peace among the living. If we want our beloved deceased to rest in peace, we, their survivors, must find wholeness and completeness in their death through sharing our tradition.