Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Recently I attended the Christian funeral of a man who had been an employee and friend of my congregation for many years. He was a good man and dearly loved, and I would make a rough guess that there were as many Jews in attendance at his funeral as Christians.

We were all there to remember and say goodbye to a good man, a man without whom the world is a poorer place. Two communities with very different beliefs joined together in grief and love to remember Jim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many differences between Protestant and Jewish funerals.

The differences boiled down to two things: the handling of the body, and the beliefs about afterlife.

• THE BODY – At this Protestant Christian funeral, the body of the deceased was dressed in his best suit and embalmed for display at the service. This was a bit of a shock to Jews in attendance who are not accustomed to it. The Jewish thinking is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead, and disrespectful to disturb the body other than washing and dressing it. The Christian thinking, if I understand it correctly, is to honor the dead by making the body look as good as possible before laying it in the earth, to provide mourners with a last memory.

• BELIEF – At a Christian funeral, there is a firm belief that this person has gone on to another life with God in heaven. The service made reference to this again and again, and the minister admonished the congregation to get into a right relationship with God, so that when their time came, they too would go to heaven. At a Jewish funeral, on the other hand, there is little if any talk about afterlife. Jews have a variety of thoughts about what happens after death, but our focus is on this life. At a Jewish funeral there is more of a focus on grief and on the importance of memory.

What was the same was the human need to stop and pay respect to a loved one who had gone from this life. We may believe different things about the mysteries of life and death, but Christian and Jew, we were awed to stand on the brink of eternity to say our farewells.


4 thoughts on “Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

  1. Interestingly I watched My Mexican Shivah recently which illustrated the process of washing the body. Very interesting for those who have never seen this before.

    As for the issue of life after death – there are so many Jewish views, including reincarnation, that everyone should find their ‘fit.’ I remember Rabbi Chester saying that at a funeral or shiva the mourner invariable opens the conversation with their own belief – “my father is – with God now; a blessed memory; on to the next life.” He said that he could affirm the mourner’s view since it was supported somewhere within Jewish tradition & law. I found that quite interesting.


    1. Yes! The important thing is to let the mourner lead that conversation. We want to comfort, but saying, “He is with God now” to a mourner who does not believe that can be very upsetting. The best thing to say to mourners is, “I’m here.”


  2. Rabbi Adar, What is appropriate behavior/attire for a Jew going to a Christian funeral? Thanks so much for your coverage of these important topics.


    1. Attending a funeral is a mitzvah. Comforting mourners is a mitzvah. One should dress nicely out of respect, and behave respectfully.

      When I attend a Christian funeral, I sit towards the back so that I can take my cues from others in the congregation. I f there are prayers I can honestly say (a psalm, for instance) I join in, and otherwise I listen quietly. I don’t say “amen” to a prayer that does not reflect my beliefs as a Jew, but I am quiet and polite.

      The important thing is respect for the dead and the comfort for mourners.


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