Mourning Non-Jewish Loved Ones

"Can a Convert Say Kaddish?" and Other Questions

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Excerpted with permission from Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew (Schocken Books).

The religious, ethnic, and cultural boundaries of the Jewish com­munity today are as permeable as they have ever been. Liberal Jews [and even many traditional Jews] routinely count non-Jews not only among their closest friends, but also as members of their families. Increases in intermarriage and conversion since the 1970s raise questions about many aspects of family and community life, including how to mourn for non-Jewish loved ones.

Although Jewish tradition has relatively little to say about mourning for non-Jews, the subject is hardly new. Through history, Jews have grieved for gentile friends, neighbors, business associates. According to Jewish law, accompanying the body of a non-Jew to the cemetery was considered an appropriate show of respect. Rabbi Maurice Lamm, a contemporary Orthodox authority on death and mourning, says that Kaddish may be recited "at the graveside of a worthy gentile."

Conversion to Judaism is an age-old part of the Jewish community, which means that Jews-by-choice have always mourned members of their non-Jewish family of origin, though often privately. Even in the contemporary atmosphere of welcome openness about conversion, Jews-by-choice and their families are sometimes at a loss about how to express their grief in meaningfully Jewish ways.

flowers in cemetaryConverts are not obliged to say Kaddish or observe other mourning rituals for non-Jewish relatives; however, the tradition has always been emphatic about the importance of showing respect for one's family of origin, especially parents. Liberal Jews who have lost a non-Jewish loved one usually attend non-Jewish funerals, wakes, and visiting hours.

The whole range of Jewish mourning customs is open to a Jew mourning for a non-Jew. Converts say Kaddish for their non-Jewish parents at daily or weekly services. The loss of a non-Jewish friend prompts some Jews to light a candle on anniversary of his death. Of course, any synagogue member can request bereavement counseling from his or her rabbi, regardless of the deceased's religion. In some congregations, there are occa­sional workshops and discussion groups about bereavement and mourning customs for converts and their families.

There are, however, some questions that transcend strictly personal choices. For example:

- Where does an intermarried couple buy a burial plot?

- How does the rabbi respond when a member of his congregation asks him to officiate at the nonsectarian funeral of her mother, a nominal but non-practicing Protestant?

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.