What if One of us Dies?

Where and how will each of us be buried?

I’ve been asked how to plan for a funeral in an interfaith family. What things should be taken into consideration in order to plan for that inevitable day when one spouse must bury the other? Can the non-Jew be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Who will do the service? What can non-Jewish clergy do in a Jewish cemetery? I have a friend who is a Jewish funeral director, so I sent her this question:

Dear Robin,
I would like to send out information to my interfaith couples about when, where and how a non-Jewish spouse can be buried in a Jewish cemetery with the Jewish partner. Could you send me a brief description for bay area couples?

Robin’s answer:
First, the general picture. The majority of Bay Area Jewish cemeteries do allow burial of a non-Jewish spouse next to the Jewish spouse. There may be some restrictions. For example, if a non-Jewish spouse dies before the Jewish spouse, the cemetery may require purchase of two adjacent graves–one for the Jewish spouse and one for the non-Jewish spouse–at the same time. They want to ensure that a non-Jew is buried there only if married to a Jewish spouse
Many Bay Area Jewish cemeteries have one or more sections for Orthodox congregations or individuals. Burial in that section may be controlled by a particular congregation (e.g. the Adath Israel section at Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma), or a group of Orthodox rabbis (e.g. the B’nai Emunah section at Gan Shalom Cemetery near Orinda). To be buried in that section, the deceased must be Jewish according to Orthodox law. The deceased must also meet Orthodox burial requirements–e.g. use a”kosher” casket, have tahara done (Jewish purification ritual), be dressed in tachrichim (Jewish burial garments), the grave is completely filled before the participants leave the cemetery, etc. A non-Jewish relative–spouse, sibling, child–would not be allowed burial in such a section
One Bay Area Jewish cemetery, Home of Peace in Oakland, is an entirely Orthodox property. It does not allow burial of any non-Jew on its property.
A Jewish funeral home will certainly know local cemeteries’ policies for interfaith couples and can advise the family before or after a death occurs. Calling the cemetery directly is just as effective, though staff at one cemetery may not know the policies at other cemeteries.
The Bay Area’s Jewish cemeteries (or inter-denominational cemeteries with a separate Jewish section) are generally more liberal than Jewish cemeteries in the Midwest or on the East Coast.

Steps to avoid future problems:

1. Every couple (interfaith or not) should have an open discussion about each partner’s burial wishes–are there other family members already buried at a particular cemetery? Is it essential that the partners be buried side-by-side at the same cemetery? Who should officiate at each person’s funeral? Do both partners plan to have a traditional ground burial, or might the non-Jewish spouse prefer cremation or placement in an above-ground crypt?

2. Before buying burial space, find out the cemetery’s policies about interfaith couples. Under what circumstances can a non-Jewish spouse be buried there? Must the couple buy two adjacent plots at the same time?

3. Ask the cemetery for a copy of its Rules and Regulations. A Jewish cemetery will probably limit the inscription permitted on a marker to traditional Jewish symbols only (Star of David, menorah) and prohibit other religious symbols (cross, angel). Jewish cemeteries will usually prohibit use of non-Jewish clergy to lead a burial service if the prayers, rituals, etc. are used from another religion.

4. Consult a funeral director before services are needed. You may want to have pre-need arrangements in place so each partner’s wishes are clearly stated in writing, to avoid future conflict within the family. Prepayment is not required, just a visit to a funeral home.

Dawn to Robin: I have one question about non-Jewish clergy – can you have a priest if he doesn’t say any Christian prayers? What would he be doing; just attending?

Robin’s answer:
An excellent question. I’ll give you an example.
I directed a service at a non-denominational cemetery for a man who had a living, non-Jewish spouse. The wife wanted her Unitarian minister to officiate. For Sinai Memorial Chapel to serve this family, she could use the minister to conduct the service but not with non-Jewish prayers, rituals, etc. So the minister led a generic service–no pall over the casket with a cross or anything, no mention of Jesus, no holy water sprinkled on the casket, no traditional Christian prayers. He wore a plain suit, not a minister’s robe or priest’s collar. He used the 23rd psalm because it’s used in both faiths and gave a wonderful eulogy.

To summarize, here’s what the non-Jewish clergy CAN do:
o offer the eulogy
o lead prayers which do not refer to Jesus, heaven, etc.

Here’s what non-Jewish clergy CANNOT DO:
o wear clerical robes of another faith
o say prayers of another faith which conflict with Jewish faith, e.g. Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer
o use symbols of another faith, e.g. casket pall with a cross

More information from specific branches of Judaism read these articles online.
Reform Judaism
Conservative Judaism
Modern Orthodox Judaism