Yahrzeit candle

Death and the Jew by Choice

How can a Jew mourn properly when his family is not Jewish? What about when the mourning traditions of the family involve things that a Jew would never do?

This is a situation that comes up eventually for most people who became Jewish as adults. Someone in the family of origin – the non-Jewish family – dies, and there’s no well-defined path for the Jew to follow. It came up for me a few years ago when my father died. My family is Catholic, and they observed Catholic and southern rituals for death: a “visitation” at the funeral home with the casket open, a funeral Mass, burial in the family plot with a priest in attendance, and a big meal featuring pork and shellfish and other treif afterwards.

In another family, there might be an expectation of cremation and scattering of ashes, or of ashes kept in an urn on the mantlepiece indefinitely. There might be a custom of no ritual at all. Other families may feel that an opulent casket and flowers are the way to show respect for the dead.

First of all, if you are reading this because you have suffered a recent loss, my condolences and sympathy are with you. The loss you feel may be made even worse by the awareness of this difference between your family and yourself. However, there are things to know that may help.

1. Call your rabbi for support and advice. The rabbi will want to know about your loss, and will want to support you in this time. You are not “less Jewish” because your family is non-Jewish: you are a Jew in pain, and your rabbi wants to know what’s going on with you. The fact that the person who died wasn’t Jewish is immaterial. You are a Jewish mourner, and you need the care of your rabbi and community.

2. Recognize that for the majority of your family, the customs they are used to are going to be the most comforting. “Viewings” and “visitations” are also a legitimate way to process loss and begin to grieve. It isn’t our custom to view a dead body, but for some people it is a way of showing respect. If you do not wish to participate in some aspect of the funeral process, you can simply skip that part, or participate minimally. At the funeral of a non-Jewish friend, I did not view the body, but I did visit the family at the funeral home. I simply hung back and did not go into the part of the room where the casket and body were displayed.

3. K’vod ha-met – respect for the dead – is a Jewish value.  By “going along” with funeral arrangements that aren’t in the Jewish tradition, you are honoring the wishes and traditions of the person who died. Making a fuss about the funeral because it does not conform with your present practice would not be respectful. At family meals, do not make a production of kashrut or other Jewish food practices – just take care of yourself and don’t eat anything you don’t want to eat. At the meal after my father’s funeral, I quietly asked in the kitchen if there were some fresh vegetables or fruit available.

4. Mourn as a Jew after the funeral. Jewish mourning practice really begins after the funeral (or in this case, after the customs of the non-Jewish family are observed, whatever they may be.) Call your rabbi or your synagogue and let them know that you will be sitting shiva. Sit shiva, and do it properly, especially after the death of a parent. What happens at shiva is not for the dead person. Shiva is for the mourner who needs to process the enormous change in their reality. Even if the relationship with the parent was not a happy one – especially in such a case! – mourning is necessary. Your Jewish community will show up for you, but they can’t do it unless you ask. The efficient way to ask is to call your rabbi or synagogue.

5. Ask for the help you need. If, reading this, you are thinking, “I wish I’d known that!” know that it is not too late to attend to old wounds. Make an appointment with your rabbi, or write an email, and tell him or her what feels unattended. It may be too late for shiva, but unfinished mourning is a genuine issue and the tradition has resources for that. If you see a pattern here of “ask your rabbi” and “seek out your community,” you are not mistaken. This sort of thing is one of the reasons that joining a comfortable synagogue or other Jewish community is a good idea for every Jew if it is at all possible.

6. Be gentle. If you go to a family funeral, and things do not go well either for you or with the family, know that all funerals are a difficult time. Be as gentle as you can be with yourself and with your fellow mourners. If you wind up eating something you normally would not eat, if you do something you would not ordinarily do because you don’t have the presence of mind to make a better choice, make teshuvah and leave it behind you.

Mourning is a difficult time. There is no easy way to do it. Our tradition offers tremendous resources for the mourner, if only we will make use of them.

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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 http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

12 thoughts on “Death and the Jew by Choice”

  1. Thanks for this post. I haven’t had to deal with this issue since converting, but have been thinking about it for myself (my old plan was cremation, so I sent an updated living will with new burial/funeral instructions to my family) and my non-Jewish family.

    I’m not sure I would be comfortable with sitting shiva, I suspect it would feel like invasion of privacy – with attendant hospitality requirements that I would not be able to suppress – more than support, with the exception of some of the awesome rabbis and some special people from the synagogue. Hmm… sounds like the people who would actually show up, now that I think of it. Food for thought there.

    I think what might work better for me – perhaps because as a convert I still focus a lot on Judaism in association with temple rather than the home – might be to go to synagogue and say Kaddish for a week, as a form of shiva.

    My thoughts have been around the yahrzeit, the year-long memory of a close relative by reciting Kaddish. I have been planning to say it for my Christian family members, after they have been buried according to their customs, because I think I would need that community support, and the ritual, and the acknowledgement of the raw pain.

    1. You raise some excellent points – thank you for commenting! You’ve given me several ideas for future posts, too.

      What a wonderful gift you have given your family, by updating your end-of-life instructions! In my experience, many non-Jewish families want very much to “do right by” their Jewish loved one, but without instructions, they are left very much in the lurch.

      I encourage you to consult with your rabbi as you move through any mourning process that comes. He or she is ready to support you in making decisions that will be right for you and will be in keeping with the tradition.

      Thanks so much for such a thoughtful comment!

  2. Thanks for posting this. I, too, haven’t had really thought about my own final preparations until the recent death of my Southern Baptist uncle and even my own acute medical issues.

    At my uncle’s funeral I was able just to attend the graveside service. At the wake I avoided eating anything treif and wasn’t castigated for it (much!). Also, I normally wear my kippah everywhere I go but didn’t when I was there. I felt bad, because I felt like I was letting my Jewish faith down, but I felt that if I wore it then the people there would be paying more attention to me than to my aunt and family during their time of mourning. Sounds silly but there it is.

    When I became ill, it scared me (still does). B”H I have a wonderful doctor and hopefully will be around for another 30-40 years! But still, it got me thinking about my own final affairs and I’m in the process of putting my requests to paper.

    I wasn’t sure if I could say Kaddish over my departed uncle and I worry that I wouldn’t be able to say kaddish for any other members of my non-Jewish family, may they live many, many more years. Would I be able do this and observe Yahrzeit for them?

    1. Thank you for the kind words – and thanks to your father who mentioned the blog to you, too!

      Are there any topics you’d like to see me address?

  3. Thank you, Rabbi Ruth.
    My Rabbi recommended the book “Mourning & Mitzvah: A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing” by Rabbi Brener.
    Just as you recommended participating respectfully in services and gatherings for our non-Jewish relatives, the whole range of Jewish traditions is open to us to mourn those same loved ones. The reading/prayer for lighting a Yahrzeit candle in the Gates of the House, CCAR, 1989 is beautiful; powerful and can be adapted to meet a variety circumstances and relationships.

  4. Thank you for this resource. My very Baptist grandma just died & I’m feeling lost & torn up about it (partially because I didn’t finish converting & do not have a relationship with either of my local synagogues).

    1. I am so sorry, Casey. If you feel ok reaching out to one of the local rabbis, that is one option. Another is to attend the funeral with family, out of respect for your grandmother, and then inviting some friends to sit shiva with you. I wish you comfort at this difficult time.

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