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?

- Will the synagogue's cemetery permit the interment of a lifelong member of the congregation who never made his conversion formal?

- Can a rabbi offer a prayer or eulogy at the church funeral of a congregant's non-Jewish husband?

- Will the name of a convert's non-Jewish family member be included in the Yizkor list of names published for Yom Kippur?

- Can a charitable contribution made in memory of a non-­Jewish parent be memorialized by a brass plaque in the temple?

These are questions that rabbis and synagogues answer in a wide range of ways and often on a case-by-case basis. They are certainly fodder for congregational debate and evidence of the changing nature of the community as a whole.

Other questions and concerns are far more intimate than institutional and, unfortunately, tend to leave mourners feeling isolated just when community is most needed. For example:

- A Jew-by-choice from a large Catholic family is told that his mother's wake will include an open casket. Can he raise objections to the practice? Can he refuse to attend the wake without giving offense? Is it meaningful to sit shiva without his siblings?

- Another convert finds herself shut out of the planning for her brother's funeral; she feels like a guest rather than a mourner at the funeral. Back in her own congregation she doesn't know if she is "entitled" to sit shiva, or how to ask for support.

- A non-Jewish synagogue member asks his rabbi if she would bury him, to which the rabbi replies, "I only know how to bury Jews."

Family dynamics, personalities, and synagogue custom determine how situations like these are resolved. But while everyloss is unique, community support remains the keystone of the Jewish response to bereavement. Mourners who feel marginalized because of religious difference should know that the issues facing all mourners--regardless of religious background--are more similar than different.

For example, the disagreements that divide interfaith families are not all that different from the ones that cause conflict in all-Jewish or all-Christian families. Most extended families are split over religious observance and practice: Some members are more traditional than others; some are affiliated while others are not. Likewise, the sense of feeling split geographically as well as religiously is a common phenomenon in the Jewish community. Holding rituals and observances that meet the needs of different branches of the family, often in different cities, is common practice.

A death can expose unreconciled issues, profound differences, and old tensions within any family. If there has been a conversion or intermarriage, old feelings of abandonment and loss may rise to the surface. Your rabbi can act as a thoughtful sounding board at such a time. He or she may have seen other mourners through similar problems.

Likewise, it may be a good idea to talk to other Jews-by-choice or members of interfaith families with similar experiences; no one else is better able to empathize with the "betwixt and between" feelings and help ease the loneliness. A rabbi or cantor may be able to help identify other bereaved Jews ­by-choice or interfaith families in the congregation.

For more resources on interfaith death issues, visit our partner, Interfaithfamily.com.

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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.