One of the issues that has been gaining prominence recently on the American Jewish scene is whether non-Jews–typically the non-Jewish partner in an intermarriage–may be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Traditionally, Jewish law has forbidden non-Jews to be buried together with Jews but, with interfaith marriage rates in this country near 50%, there is new pressure to allow a Jewish final resting places to families that were committed to Judaism in life. A striking example is the Beit Olam cemetery outside of Boston–founded seven years ago as a Jewish cemetery that would welcome non-Jewish partners, it was expected to have enough lots to serve the needs of the Boston area for thirty years. It is already full and an expansion is under way.
The core issues surrounding the traditional practice of disallowing non-Jews to be buried with Jews are murky. The reasoning prohibiting the practice is dubious and stems from an age where relations between Jews and non-Jews were typically marked by hostility. In our own times, non-Jews are often not only a part of our circle of friends; with increasing frequency they are a part of our family. Add to this the fact that it’s not even always clear who is Jewish or not–the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept patrilineal status (meaning, the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is Jewish) while Conservative and Orthodox do not. A non-Jew who converts in the Conservative movement may be accepted as Jewish in some communities and not in others. The point is, with issues of personal status becoming increasingly fuzzy and intertwined, we do not want to make Jewish cemeteries and funeral directors the final arbiters of Jewish identity, especially in the face of grieving families.
The solution? Recognize that, for practical purposes, what makes a cemetery Jewish is that the cemetery as a whole is governed by Jewish customs and practices, and not the religious status of any given individual who may be buried there. Jewish cemeteries should welcome non-Jewish partners for burial, provided that the interment services are ecumenical and compatible with Jewish norms, and that no non-Jewish symbols are displayed. This, in fact, is the position that the Reform Movement took in 1914 and that has governed their practice ever since. This path welcomes the growing number of Jewish interfaith families while preserving the distinctive Jewish character of the cemetery as a whole. It is thus a fitting parallel in death for the way our communities should welcome interfaith couples in a life: as fellow travelers who are often dedicated to building and supporting Jewish homes and Jewish communities.