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Planning for the Future: Frequently Asked Questions and Considerations for Interfaith Families

Republished October 18, 2010

On their wedding anniversary, a thoughtful husband presented his wife with a deed for two cemetery lots. Though taken aback, the wife realized that the gift was practical and so, it was gratefully received.

On their next anniversary the following year, the husband offered no gift. Disappointed, the wife finally questioned her loving spouse.

"Of course no gift," he answered. "You haven't used last year's gift yet!"

We tend to joke about topics that make us uncomfortable. Buying graves and discussing funeral pre-arrangements are awkward or painful subjects that make us uneasy. Cemetery and funeral arrangements are further complicated by beliefs, traditions, and religious practices--issues and questions that an interfaith family must confront.

As Jewish death care professionals, we encourage observance of Jewish customs and practices. While our by-law is observance of tradition, our policy is to build bridges of inclusion, rather than walls to exclude. It is our hope that with explanation, knowledge, planning, and forethought, interfaith families can find special comfort at the time of bereavement.

How is the Jewish service different from the typical American funeral?
* In keeping with the proscription "Bury me before sundown on the day I die," funerals are held as soon as the family is able to assemble, usually in one or two days.
* There are no wakes. There is no embalming. Families may arrange a private opportunity to say good-by but public viewings are discouraged.
* Jewish tradition teaches "Dust thou art and to dust thou shall return." The Jewish funeral usually includes an all-wood constructed casket that does not offer protection and will eventually return the body to the earth. Caskets ranging from simple pine to beautiful solid hardwood allow choices for all families. In keeping with tradition, a Jewish funeral service ends with burial in the earth or, if required, in unsealed grave boxes, not sealed burial vaults. A newer cemetery may choose to permit the burial of a sealed or unsealed grave box or vault because it provides a firm foundation for the lawn and maintains the integrity of the cemetery grounds. An unsealed box might be preferred because it still allows the casket to return to the earth according to tradition.

Who will officiate?
Many interfaith couples choose to "live Jewish lives." They are participants in the Jewish community. Observing Jewish burial practice is a logical extension, but cemetery regulations and rabbinic practice may limit the choices available for an interfaith burial service. Affiliated couples will turn to their own rabbi for assistance, but unaffiliated families may need to rely on the Jewish funeral director, Jewish friends or family to find a rabbi able to officiate at the funeral or interment service.

Can an interfaith couple be buried in the same cemetery?
Burial options for an interfaith couple include municipal or non-sectarian cemeteries, or cemeteries established by non-religious, less traditional or socialist-fraternal organizations. Older Jewish cemeteries with ritually consecrated land must honor the criteria of burying only members of the Jewish faith. However, there are some newer cemeteries where arrangements have been made to include interfaith couples and families. A Jewish funeral director, rabbi, or cemetery association should be a good resource for finding such a cemetery. (For a Jewish funeral director, contact www.jfda.org; for cemetery information, begin the search within your local area or contact www.jcam.org.)

Are there other considerations in choosing a cemetery?
In conjunction with earth burial comes the obligation to mark the grave. Cemeteries enforce their own regulations regarding styles of markers. Choices include: traditional with upright monuments, family plots combining one large family stone and flat markers for each individual burial, or the contemporary memorial park with flat markers only. A cemetery may also have regulations regarding inscriptions, religious symbols, or words. Before purchasing graves, an interfaith family wishing to accommodate two religious traditions should be aware of the rules and regulations of the cemetery, including prohibition against crucifixes on monuments or non-Jewish clergy officiating at burials. The family may also want to investigate rules for visitation. A Jewish cemetery is closed on Saturday, Shabbat, as well as some religious holidays. The performance of ritual visitation, on the anniversary, Yahrzeit, of a death or before the Jewish New Year, is a traditional Jewish practice. When visiting a grave, people often recite prayers, spend a few moments remembering the person, and many place a small stone on the monument, a custom that most likely harks back to biblical days when Jews were desert wanderers and used a pile of stones as a monument. The stones not only marked the location, but also prevented animals from invading the grave. Upon visiting it was considered a "mitzvah" or good deed to replace stones that may have been moved. Today, we leave visitation stones to mark our visit, building onto our loved ones' legacy with love and respect.

Is cremation allowed?
Contrary to Jewish faith for many reasons, including millions cremated against their will in the Holocaust, cremation is not a generally accepted Jewish option, although some Jews will select this as an alternative. Many Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union have brought loved ones' ashes to America for interment. Their American rabbis have chosen to accept burial of those ashes knowing that their former country would not accept Jewish burials and that families had no other option at the time of death. For these new Americans, burial brings closure and provides a place that unites the family for future visitations.

Not all Jewish cemeteries will permit the burial of cremains. The older, traditional cemeteries that sold to families with the ancient promise of burial only among the Israelite faith cannot and will not allow burial of cremains -- just as they cannot allow the interment of non-Jews.

As always, asking questions should generate additional questions. Hopefully, families will seize the opportunity for frank and open discussion regarding these difficult decisions and, if necessary, will turn to professionals for support and guidance.

 

Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.

Jane Salk was Executive Director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, (www.jcam.org) a non-profit communal agency that provides for management, restoration and preservation of cemeteries in Mass.

Bruce Schlossberg has been a Jewish funeral director in eastern Massachusetts for more than 25 years and was a founder and former Executive Director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts.

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