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Uniting Family and Friends of Different Religions to Mourn a Beloved Grandmother

My mother-in-law died on Wednesday. She was ninety-one and had lived a rich, full, satisfying life. She died without pain, at home, surrounded by family.

Her lovely caretaker of almost six years and several family members had mourning customs quite different from the Jewish ones, which, sadly, I knew too well. Tradition had helped me put one foot in front of the other when all I wanted to do was wallow in my unhappiness, after the deaths of my parents, stepmother, and father-in-law. I knew the value of tradition. I also knew that other family members might need to find comfort in their own traditions. Since death is part of life, mourning is a universal feeling.

Everyone seemed to understand that it was the mourners, my husband and his sister, who would decide what customs we would follow. Most of us had attended the funerals and wakes of workmates. We knew that one group's mourning customs are different from another's. And we knew that they all give comfort to the mourners.

Our Jewish family members found great comfort in the Jewish mourning customs, but the caretaker and relatives with other religions needed comfort, too. Thus, after my husband made the funeral arrangements, I did what I had learned as a mother: I talked with each person close to my mother-in-law who was from another tradition and explained what was going to happen and why. My children and I then asked the caretaker and our family members about their mourning customs. It led to wonderful discussions about the mourning customs of each religion represented amongst all those who deeply felt the loss of my mother-in-law. Some cultures show respect by sending flowers. We accepted them graciously when they were sent, but we requested that the helper and the extended family members suggest contributions to charities rather than flowers if asked.

Because the customs of one group are different from those of another, dialogue about the differences is essential: all too often, what one group sees as respect feels like disrespect by another. For example, in the caretaker's tradition one honors the dead with as fancy a casket as is affordable and by dressing the body in the finest clothes. I was able to explain that we use a simple casket and a shroud to signify that we are all equal before God.

In this way, we observed the Jewish traditional mourning customs, but made all our family members feel better by taking time to explain why we do what we do.

The warmth and caring and love we had all received from Grandma sustained us and kept us focused on the universal need to take time to mourn a loved one rather than on the details of the mourning differences.

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, a resident scholar at Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, is author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family.

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