Death in the Interfaith Family

By Lisa Friedman


In life, Mara and Stephen Collins respected and enjoyed one another’s religions. So it seemed only natural to do the same in death.

Brought together by an online dating service, Stephen and Mara felt an instant kinship. Both worked in the human services field near Boston. Mara describes herself as “culturally Jewish” while Stephen, raised Catholic, left the church several years before they met.

As a couple, Stephen attended synagogue with Mara and stood on the bimah during her adult B’Nai Mitzvah service. Mara joined Stephen’s family for Christmas celebrations and grew so close with them that she now declares simply, “My family is Catholic.”

The couple married in 2003. A few weeks later, doctors diagnosed Stephen with pancreatic cancer. In the months of hospice care before Stephen’s death, Mara urged her husband to talk to a Catholic priest.

“Not for just anything, but this is where you came from, and you might find it comforting,” Mara recalled telling him. He relented, and they found a young priest with whom Stephen connected. Ultimately, Stephen even received last rites, a moment Mara sensed helped her husband profoundly.

At Stephen’s funeral in September 2004, Mara decided that while she wanted to honor her husband’s Catholicism, she also needed to experience the familiarity of a Jewish ceremony. Both her rabbi and Stephen’s priest agreed to co-officiate a service. They recited psalms in English and Hebrew. The rabbi said Yizkor (memorial service), while the priest gave the Catholic rites of burial.

“My belief is that funerals are for the living, not the dead, and I needed something to get through this because it was pretty awful,” Mara said. Of the service and the shiva (seven days of mourning), she noted “it’s a ritual I’ve done before. It’s part of who I am.”

For Stephen, she said, “he wanted it because it was how he was raised and for his family. That was part of what he was, and I think dying made him realize he was still a Catholic.”

“I think it ended up being a big source of comfort to both families,” said Rabbi Jonathan Kraus of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Mass., who co-conducted the service.

While funerals like Stephens remain rare, rabbis and other religious leaders say the phenomenon is growing–along with new, complicated questions about death that reflect the rising number of intermarried couples in America.

With interfaith marriage rates hovering at 47 percent, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, clergy increasingly are confronted with a largely unexplored frontier of uncertainties surrounding bereavement and mourning practices.

Some questions are practical. Can a rabbi officiate at the funeral of a congregant’s non-Jewish spouse? Can there be a shiva? What prayers are said? Where can the couple be buried together?

Other issues–like whether saying Mourner’s Kaddish for a loved one can bring comfort to someone who has converted to Judaism–have no answers in rabbinic tradition.

“All of these are somewhat new questions,” Kraus said. “To a degree, we are now in a time period where these first interfaith families are beginning to deal with these issues. And there’s a range of responses and sensitivities.”

Sally Lesser of Cambridge, Mass., recently converted to Judaism, and at the time of her mother’s death in 1998 she was living a Jewish life. She and her husband belonged to a synagogue, her sons were bar mitzvahed and, she said, “at that point, I identified more with Jewish tradition than Christian tradition.” Her mother, however, was a devout Christian, and the funeral service reflected that tradition.

“It was very moving, very familiar,” Lesser said. “Even though I personally didn’t relate to it, I felt this had been my faith, and I knew how important it was to my mother.

“I didn’t regret not feeling personally attached to this liturgy or worship or beliefs. I could appreciate its meaning for all of those around me.”

After the funeral, she had her mother’s name added to her synagogue’s yahrzeit (anniversary of someone’s death) list, and once a year she sent e-mails to her siblings–two of whom are ordained ministers–explaining the meaning behind the Jewish tradition of lighting a candle and reciting Kaddish on the anniversary of a loved one’s death.

“It was nice to share that with them,” Lesser said.

Clergy also are taking new steps to help support interfaith families during periods of mourning, said Dr. Paula Brody, director of the Union of Reform Judaism’s Outreach Training Institute, which held its second-ever conference on the topic in March.

“Bereavement is an issue that needs to be readdressed,” Brody said, adding she also often urges interfaith couples to start asking questions early about the type of service or tradition they want to follow if one of them or a relative dies.

“As I always say to young couples, the time that you don’t want to start discussing differences in how I grieve, you grieve, is not when you’re also going through grief.”

Not only are interfaith marriages increasing, Brody noted, but with 27 percent of all Jewish intermarried couples between the ages of 35 and 54, many of them are dealing with the deaths of their own parents.

“As the population gets older, the question is going to come up more frequently,” agreed Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, which recently co-launched a program with Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal (STAR), based in Minnesota, to help 18 synagogues become more welcoming to interfaith couples.

The Call Synagogue Home program will take place at temples in three different communities and, according to the groups, will provide congregations and clergy “with tools and communications to reach out to interfaith families during key life-cycle events and ritual celebrations,” including death.

Olitzky said the questions for non-Jewish partners can be particularly complex.

“The question becomes ‘How do I respond to that death? How do friends of mine who I’ve met in the context of the Jewish community, how do they respond to my mourning?'” Olitzky said, adding, “There’s no script that has been written yet.”

Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barak Fishman said she has found in interviews with interfaith couples that deaths in families often trigger untapped reservoirs of emotions–much in the same way that giving birth to a child does. Shaken to their roots in times of mourning, people often find themselves clinging to the traditions in which they were raised.

“The religious tradition they come out of may have a power and a salience for them they didn’t know it was going to have,” she said. “That can raise a lot of conflict that the couple didn’t know they were going to have to deal with.”

In some cases, she noted, the death of a parent or family member may make a non-Jewish spouse who had considered converting feel more free to do so. In others cases, she said, recalling an interview she conducted with a Japanese woman married to a Jewish man who, upon the death of her aunt, felt overwhelmed with grief that she was not giving her son a Buddhist tradition, “it opens up doors that people didn’t know were there.”

For Mara and Stephen Collins, Stephen’s Catholic/Jewish funeral was a way for them to honor both their lives.

Mara buried Stephen in an interfaith section of Sharon Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery in Sharon, Mass., and when she dies she will be buried with him. Their bronze plaque has a Star of David on one side and a cross on the other.

“Intermarriage is here to stay and it’s not going away,” she said. “We have to find a way to embrace it instead of just saying, ‘bad, bad, bad.'”


About Lisa Friedman

Lisa Friedman is the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the L.A. Daily News and Los Angeles Newspaper Group. Her fiancé is Muslim. Her family is dealing the best they can.