In October 2011, I was called to do an interfaith wedding, scheduled for the day after Yom Kippur in suburban Pennsylvania. It was an unusual situation: the groom was Jewish and unaffiliated with a local community. The bride was Syrian Catholic. Her priest had refused to marry them after learning they planned to raise their children with some traditions from both religions. As a result, they chose a “neutral” site for the wedding, a historic Lutheran Church to which neither one belonged. I found myself working with Pastor George, who had never officiated an interfaith wedding in his church.
We worked out the ceremony, leaving out all references to Jesus in order to be sensitive to the Jews in attendance. It was quite a sight to see the chuppah all decorated in a church. The ceremony came off without a hitch. It was particularly moving when the bride, who had a rare immune disease, was hugged by her doctor, as he had kept her alive to reach her wedding day.
Four months later, I received a call that the bride had died. The autoimmune disease that had been under control had suddenly reappeared. I again found myself making arrangements with Pastor George, this time for a funeral in his church. Since the groom was Jewish and had requested a rabbi, I felt called to be there to offer some comfort.
We worked out the order of the service. I was on hand to cut keriah, a ribbon that is affixed to the mourner’s clothing and cut, representing a torn heart. I was to offer thoughts of comfort and some consolation. It was very sad when they played Pachabel’s Canon as the casket was wheeled in, the same song she had walked down the same aisle to only four months before.
The defining interfaith moment, and the hardest decision we had to make regarding the funeral, was whether to leave the casket open or closed. For Syrian Catholics, her family’s tradition, the casket stays open. The Jewish tradition is to keep it closed. The Lutheran tradition is to open beforehand, but close it for the ceremony. It was decided to keep it open for a viewing period of three hours prior to the service and then to close it for the ceremony. It would be reopened for the private, family, Catholic mass the next day.
There were ten eulogies and many testimonies to her life. I deliberately chose not to speak about the afterlife — a possible point of contention — but rather to speak of Jewish tradition’s wisdom of comforting the mourner. I addressed not only how to support a mourner but how to view this tragic death from God’s eyes.
I also tried to answer the Jewish husband’s other questions. As his wife was to be buried in a mausoleum, how would he fulfill the traditional Jewish custom of placing stones on her grave? Should he say Kaddish for his wife who wasn’t Jewish? Should he honor her wishes even if they conflicted with Jewish tradition?
I suggested that he take stones and put them near the mausoleum. He will also plant a tree near there in the springtime. He will say Kaddish if he finds it comforting. And I totally supported his decision to honor her wishes — such as the open casket — even if they were conflict with Jewish tradition.[*]
At the end of the ceremony, when everyone had left, the sexton of the church came over to me to say how sorry he was and how he had remembered this couple. He said they had left a mark on this church with their wedding. I asked, “How so?” He then walked me to the place where the chuppah had stood and showed me a small crack in the stone floor where the groom had smashed the glass at the end of their wedding ceremony.
On my drive home, I reflected whether this small mark was a small crack in the distance between church and synagogue or was some other indication of the brokenness that was to evolve four months later. In any case, I was humbled by the task of providing some comfort for the family at this time.
[*]In my pre-wedding counseling of couples, I always suggest they have a conversation about their burial wishes. Once, a number of years ago, another one of my young brides died in the first year of marriage. The groom, distraught, called me because he was in disagreement with his in-laws. They wanted her buried in a secular cemetery in the state where they lived, he wanted her near him in Philadelphia. Ever since then, I have had my couples ask each other what they would like. It brings home the point of how real marriage is and the new responsibility they have to each other. It also helps them honor each other’s wishes should that time come.