Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Image: President Barack Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden, President Bill Clinton, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, and members of Congress, attends the memorial service for Sen. Robert C. Byrd at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., July 2, 2010. Photo public domain.

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.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

12 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.”

      1. When a high school classmate died recently, a pious Catholic told me, “Now you have a new saint in heaven!” I. Was. Livid.

        Fortunately for her, I become nearly speechless when I’m that angry. All I could manage was, “No! She’s DEAD!”

  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.

  3. Hopefully this doesn’t come out too disjointed. It is from a series of tweets I sent the Rabbi reacting to this piece.

    G-d yes! This brings back the day we walked into my gentile husband’s grandfather’s funeral and the body was RIGHT THERE! My knees buckled. S caught me and clung to me and when I could breathe I leaned over and said “This interfaith marriage just got real.” The worst part was that, having never actually attended a funeral of this side of his family, he was blindsided too. He had never been to an open casket funeral either, or any funeral on this particular side of the family, and had never anticipated this. I have gentile family members (we are a second generation interfaith family) but those family members believe in cremation, so this was never on my radar until this very moment.
    We went out for air and to regroup but were shepherded back in after a while because we were late to be standing in the receiving line. We were expected to be standing next to Grandpop’s body for the next two and a half hours while every citizen of Linwood, NJ paid their respects. I do mean every citizen. He lived there all of his life when he wasn’t fighting in World War 2. He was beloved, and rightly so. A fine man, a kind man. We still miss him terribly. Our son is named for him and for my maternal grandfather.
    I just couldn’t do it. I shook. S whispered to me “GO!” when no one was looking and I booked it out. A long line of seniors, lifelong friends were standing in a long, slow, line in the hot hall to pay their respects. Some wobbled. 90% of the people were over 80. The hall was hot. Funeral director did nothing for them. So I did what was probably the most Jewish thing I could have done: Started bringing water to the red-faced, brought chairs to people who couldn’t stand that long. The line was long. Everyone had a story about Grandpop.
    So I did that for two and a half hours. Never felt so Jewish in my life. I was a little unsure if there would be hell to pay from my in-laws afterwards but I knew what I could do, and I knew what I couldn’t do, so I did my best.
    At the end, my MIL’s Jewish co-worker came in. I’d heard Mindy was coming. Instant Jewdar. I introduced myself. She knew of me. She whispered “I can’t sit near the body” I said “Why do you think I am out here in the hall?” We laughed quietly. A moment of connection. We entered from the back of the room.
    We attended the funeral from a niche inside the room where we couldn’t see the body, and literally clung to each other. I realize that may sound silly to someone used to open casket funerals, but remember in our faith we NEVER see a dead body unless we are a close relative or work in health care or funeral care. It is just not done.
    I suppose it was a very Jewish response to the most awkward and hardest thing I have ever had to do. I can live with that.
    The truth is that while I can’t quite imagine doing this again (and S’s Nana is still with us) I understand the ritual. By sitting with the body you have time to understand that the person in question really isn’t coming back. There is value to that, and I respect it. Judaism has its own ways of driving home that exact point, and one isn’t better or worse than the other. Just different, but that difference as an human being can be huge.

    1. Thank you so much for telling your story here! I think that there are a number of readers who will recognize this situation, or something much like it.

      I am sorry that there is another loss on the horizon. May you and your family be comforted among the mourners of Israel AND among the mourners in your own family of other traditions when that time comes.

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