Some Historical Context
Before interfaith marriage became a part of mainstream, contemporary Jewish life, synagogues rarely faced the issue of families seeking to have loved ones who are not Jewish buried in a Jewish cemetery. The ancient rules and rituals that governed Jewish cemeteries for many centuries came about in an era when religions often viewed outsiders with suspicion and fear. As we entered modern times, we entered the era of intermarriage as a common element of Jewish life, and one of the shifts that began to take place was the development of more open and inclusive practices regarding the burial of people of other faiths in Jewish cemeteries. Keeping this background information in mind, here are some FAQs:
- May someone not Jewish be buried in a Jewish cemetery? May a Jew be buried in a cemetery that’s not Jewish?
- Who officiates at services for a spouse or relative who is not Jewish?
- May Jews observe Jewish mourning rituals for relatives who are not Jewish?
- May Jews participate in funerals of people of other faiths? May those who are not Jewish participate in Jewish funerals?
My responses to these questions are based on American Reform Jewish opinion expressed throughout the twentieth century (2). Other movements (or, as some call them, denominations) of Judaism offer different ideas and responses.
Question #1 – Cemetery Burial
It is accepted practice to bury a spouse who is not Jewish in a Jewish cemetery. The opinion of Reform thinkers is that when others disallow the burial of a person who isn’t Jewish in a Jewish cemetery, they are adhering to custom, not Jewish law. The Talmud, or body of texts that comprises Jewish law, states that for the sake of peaceful relations, we may bury the non-Jewish dead (Gittin 61a). Bear in mind that this teaching does not come from the modern liberal era we inhabit, but from an ancient context in which dividing lines between religious groups were thick and often rigid.
Reform Judaism’s practice has been to permit relatives who aren’t Jewish to be buried in Jewish cemeteries provided that there be no symbols of other religions on the person’s grave marker. Generally, clergy of other faiths are not permitted to officiate at the interment in a Jewish cemetery. The rules do differ from cemetery to cemetery, so it’s always a good idea to ask.
The concept of a Jewish cemetery is an extension of Jewish communal identity and cohesion. It is, therefore, desirable for Jews to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Yet, when a Jew is buried in a non-Jewish cemetery, a rabbi may officiate nonetheless.
Question #2 – Who Officiates for a Spouse Who is Not Jewish?
Here is the typical model that is used in the Reform movement: if a spouse who is not Jewish is a practicing member of another faith, a clergyperson of that faith officiates at the church, mosque, funeral home, or other facility being used for a funeral. If the interment for the deceased is to be in a Jewish cemetery following the funeral, generally a rabbi officiates at the graveside. If a spouse who is not Jewish has been part of Jewish family and communal life, but has never converted, a rabbi may officiate at the funeral and at the interment, if such was the wish of the deceased.
Question #3 – Observing Jewish Rituals for Those Who Are Not Jewish
Traditionally, Jewish mourning rituals are observed for a deceased spouse, parent, sibling or child. If the (not Jewish) deceased stands in one of these relations to a Jewish mourner, we encourage the mourner to observe Jewish mourning customs. Such practices are intended to support the living and to help them express their grief. They also serve to honor the memory of the deceased by those to whom they were beloved. Kaddish–the prayer extolling God that is said by mourners–then, may certainly be recited for those not Jewish. Converts to Judaism may say Kaddish for deceased relatives who were not Jewish.
Question #4 – Participation in Funerals
Jews mourning relatives and friends who were not Jewish may attend funeral services held in a church or funeral chapel. Jews may serve as pall bearers, and may accept an invitation to speak about the deceased. In a Roman Catholic funeral, the Eucharist (Communion) may be included. Of course, Jews do not participate in receiving communion, nor do Jews kneel during the service. In certain Protestant denominations, the funeral is an occasion to witness for Jesus, with less emphasis on the life of the deceased. Jews can participate in these funerals as guests without participating in requests by the officiants for people to declare their allegiance to Jesus or embrace Christian theological beliefs.
Participation by those who are not Jewish in a Jewish funeral tends to involve serving as pall bearers and/or offering a eulogy. Rabbis will help guide, advise, and support people of other faiths who want to offer loving participation in a Jewish person’s funeral or burial.
In Jewish tradition, burial of the dead is sometimes referred to as Hesed shel emet, which is a Hebrew expression that roughly translates to “an act of true loving-kindness.” This term expresses the idea that what we do for the dead is the most sincere and selfless act of caring we can perform, since the dead cannot repay us. Burying relatives who were not Jewish in our midst and expressing our grief through Jewish mourning practice is no less an effort of true loving-kindness. The act of Hesed shel emet stands as a memorial to relationships in life which bespoke love, devotion and caring. Further, our openness promotes peace among the living. If we want our beloved deceased to rest in peace, we, their survivors, must find wholeness and completeness in their death through sharing our tradition.
1. A person who converts to Judaism is considered to be Jewish in every way. Here, someone not Jewish refers either to someone who practices a faith other than Judaism or to someone who may participate in Jewish celebrations and communal life, but never formally converted.
2. Orthodox Jewish answers to the questions above are either negative or decidedly restrictive. For more information, see The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Maurice Lamm, Jonathan David Publishers, New York, 1969.
- Contemporary American Reform Responses, Walter Jacob, editor, Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1987.
- American Reform Responses, Walter Jacob, editor, Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1983.
- A Guide for Reform Jews, revised edition, David Polish KTAV Publishing House, New York, 1973.