Contemporary Issues in Death, Burial, and Mourning

Multifaith Families

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Did the ancient rabbinic sages have contemplate the situation of an Orthodox Jewish woman mourning the death of her Catholic mother? Of a Jewish man saying kaddish for his late wife, a devout Buddhist? Although Jewish tradition until recently has not anticipated these specific scenarios, it does inform and lay the groundwork for the way we approach such questions today. 

Jewish tradition has had comparatively little to say about mourning for non-Jewish family members, although it does provide some guidance to converts regarding how they might mourn parents (in the most traditional formulation, as they would close friends but not relatives), and to the parents of converts to other religions, who mourn the death of their children as any other Jewish parents would.  Today, an increasing number of Jews live in families, immediate or extended, composed of individuals of more than one religion, raising new and expanded questions--and stimulating new answers--during times of death and mourning.

death and mourning quizConverts are not strictly obligated to observe mourning rituals for non-Jewish relatives, but many authorities (and virtually all liberal rabbis) do permit them to observe any and all Jewish mourning customs as they would for Jewish relatives. Most liberal Jews who have lost a non-Jewish loved one also will attend non-Jewish funerals, wakes, and the like. They may struggle with practices with which they are no longer comfortable or with family members who feel estranged because of their differing religious choices.

Intermarried individuals face additional challenges--for example, where and how they will be buried, whether they will be buried side-by-side with their spouse (since many Jewish cemeteries only bury Jews, or have separate areas for non-Jewish relatives), and to what extent a rabbi will take part in the non-Jewish funeral of someone married to a synagogue member.

Burial in a Jewish Cemetery

Thereare many laws and customs governing the burial of Jews separately from non-Jews. Cemeteries adhering to these practices often permit burial only of those who are Jewish as defined by the longstanding traditional definition (that is, born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism under the auspices of Jewish law).

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