Interfaith Cemeteries: A Growing Need

By Claire Bessette


Reprinted with permission of The Day.

More and more Jews are marrying people of other religions or no religion, but under Jewish custom they cannot be buried with their spouses. Now, the Norwich, Conn. Hebrew Benevolent Association has developed a Jewish interfaith cemetery on its property on Middle Road in Preston. The group had not finished putting the finishing touches on the landscaping when members realized demand would be so high it would have to be nearly doubled in size.

According to the 1990 national Jewish population survey, a record 52 percent of marriages involving Jewish people were to non-Jewish people. The percentage is expected to continue to grow. These families often celebrate Jewish and Christian holidays together, attend religious services together, and interact with families of both religions. But many of them faced separation in death unless special provisions were made.

“It’s one of the realities we have to face,” said Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg of Temple Emanu-El, a reform Jewish congregation in Waterford, Conn. About one-third of the families in the congregation are interfaith, and while many of them are young, they are starting to consider the religious and traditional barriers that would keep them physically apart after death.

According to Jewish law and custom, a Jewish cemetery is reserved for people who were born Jewish or converted to the faith. Custom says a Jewish person cannot be buried adjacent to someone of another faith or no faith, said Jerome Fischer, director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.

While many faithful Jews may feel it’s time to relax the requirement, they hesitate changing the rules in established cemeteries in honor of the dead buried there–who never imagined their descendants would face such an issue.

“That’s the big challenge,” Fischer said. “The other challenge is the flip side. Let’s say they decide they want to be buried in a Christian cemetery, just that the Jewish person doesn’t want a cross on his grave. Some rabbis will not do a Jewish funeral service in a Christian cemetery.”

Harry Swatsburg, 80, of Norwich and his wife Selma are Jewish and have no children, but he is still bothered by the fact that an interfaith couple could be buried in different cemeteries.

Swatsburg served as treasurer of the Norwich Hebrew Benevolent Association for 13 years and is now chairman of the association’s executive board. The association manages the 76-acre Jewish cemetery in Preston that is open to Jews of any local synagogue or temple.

“It’s a very sensitive situation and we’re trying to resolve it as we enter the 21st century,” Swatsburg said. “…I want the parents to be together. I want the children to be able to come to the cemetery and see there’s where Mommy is buried, and there’s Daddy.”

After a decade of broaching the subject of creating an interfaith burial section on the association’s expansive grounds–and accepting the criticism and rebuke of synagogue leaders and Jewish friends–Swatsburg’s dream has come true.

The association went ahead with plans for a 109-plot interfaith cemetery–to become cemetery #4 on the Middle Road property.

Weinberger stressed that the association is neither promoting nor condoning interfaith marriages. But it recognizes the growing national and local trends and will respond to them.

Cemetery #4 had to be physically separated from the other developed sections of the Jewish cemetery. A paved road rings the interfaith cemetery on three sides and a row of American Arborvitae trees was planted last month on two sides that face the expanded cemetery #3 and the new parking lot that will be used for services in both sections.

If one member of the family unit is Jewish, then any member of the family unit can be buried in cemetery #4, the by-laws state. Children who are recognized as Jews by the Reform, but not Orthodox or Conservative Jewish movements, can be buried there. And if the non-Jewish spouse dies first, he or she may be buried in the new interfaith section.

The burial ceremony may be conducted by a minister, priest or rabbi, but the funeral service itself must be held elsewhere–such as a house of worship or funeral home. No burials will be permitted on the Sabbath or on any Jewish religious holiday. And only non-denominational symbols will be allowed on the headstones. Ashes of cremated remains must be buried in a specific section and may not be scattered over any part of the cemetery.

The executive committee expected cemetery plots to sell slowly, as interfaith families tend to be younger and focused on raising families rather than setting a final resting place. However, a full 20 percent of the plots were sold before the cemetery even opened. Realizing that it would be too small before long, they pulled out the engineering drawings, contacted the contractor and started expansion plans.

Despite the positive response, Swatsburg is still sensitive to delicate issues he has raised–life and death, religion and custom. One woman called him and angrily challenged his idea. “Do you mean to tell me a Catholic priest would come there to perform a burial ceremony?” she shouted over the phone. Swatsburg had no answer. He wrote down her phone number, hung up the phone, and took a short trip from his home to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich office.

“As long as the grave site can be blessed–and it can in this type of cemetery–there’s no problem (with a priest) conducting a ceremony there,” said Gerard Hall, director for the Norwich Diocese office of worship. Hall said canon law gives Catholics the right to choose their place of burial. Blessing the grave site is part of the Catholic burial ceremony and must be done by a priest or deacon, he said.

Interfaith cemeteries and sections of cemeteries have been on the rise for the past decade or so, local Jewish officials said. But the emotional issues remain strong.

About Claire Bessette

Claire Bessette is a staff writer for The Day.