Until Death Do Us Part: Burials for Interfaith Couples
My Jewish uncle wants to be buried next to his wife, who was a Quaker, but a rabbi won't officiate. What should we do?
Have a religion etiquette question? Send e-mail to Arthur Magida, author of "How to Be a Perfect Stranger," at email@example.com.
My terminally ill uncle has made it clear he wants to be buried next to his wife, who, as a practicing Quaker, was buried in a Friends cemetery. But two rabbis tell us they won't officiate at a funeral for any Jew--even one who's identified himself as a Jew throughout his life--who will rest in a non-Jewish cemetery. How can we honor our uncle's request?
Your request might be out of the ordinary, but it's not outlandish. Your uncle was Jewish and, according to what you say, dedicated to his faith. That should be acknowledged by any good, empathetic rabbi, one who will understand that your uncle should not be drummed out of Judaism posthumously because his love for his wife equaled his love for his faith.
At the risk of sounding a bit crass, you need to "shop" around for the "right" rabbi. For that, it's best to approach Reform rabbis and remind them that in the late 1940s, their own movement issued a "responsa," a decision regarding Jewish law, affirming that Jewish cemeteries are not "as a whole, consecrated ground" and "only the spot where the body is interred becomes sacred." This allows burying non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries; by extension, it lets Jews be buried in non-Jewish cemeteries and also lets Reform rabbis officiate at such burials.
"We cannot at this late date raise ghetto walls around our own cemeteries," the rabbi who wrote the responsa said, "nor can we ban a Jew from the benefits of his own religion because he has chosen to make his abode among the dead of another faith."
Also, the responsa continued, a Jew's desire for a rabbi to officiate at his burial next to his gentile wife in a non-Jewish cemetery "affirms most emphatically his Jewish loyalty" and in no way indicates that the deceased Jew had any "non-Jewish allegiance."
Your uncle was devoted to his faith. Now it's up to you and others in your family to ensure that that faith is affirmed in perpetuity by finding a thoughtful and compassionate rabbi who will help remember him as he was meant to be remembered.