Articles about interfaith families usually focus on the interfaith couple and their children: making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, making it work. But as most married couples can attest, when we marry we marry not only our beloved, but also all his or her relatives. And usually it’s still a matter of making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, and making it work.
But when it comes time for a funeral, things can become painful and complicated very quickly, because death is terrifying and loss is excruciating. Even the calmest, most rational people are at their least rational in the time of bereavement. Tradition, which may not be important at any other time, suddenly looms large. And as outreach expert Kathy Kahn once taught me, “We do not get do-overs for funerals.” The emotional stakes are very high for funerals.
So everyone is in a lot of pain, and often there are no written instructions about what the departed wanted for the funeral. Jewish burial and mourning practices are very detailed and very precise, and in many ways they come into conflict with the traditions of other religions and regions. These conflicts can set us up for painful adjustments and conversations.
For instance, I recently helped a student plan his return to Alabama for a Southern Baptist funeral. (I have changed details for his privacy.) There would be a visitation at the funeral home of many hours, with the embalmed body of the departed at the focal point of the room. There would be an open casket service. Afterwards, there might be a meal for the family, and then the funeral would be over. My student said, with anguish, “We don’t look at dead bodies, rabbi! I hate that they are going to embalm my grandfather!” So we talked about ways for him to navigate the funeral without looking at the deceased (in Jewish tradition, we do not look at a dead person, out of respect and kindness.) We talked about and rehearsed what to say to people who wanted to comfort him with talk about Jesus or about the appearance of the dead. Then we talked about arranging Jewish mourning with his Jewish community when he gets home. A tough loss is going to be tougher because he is Jewish and his family is not.
In other cases, I have assisted families in planning funerals that would meet the needs of both the Jewish and Christian relatives. Even if there is agreement about “no open casket,” the Catholic side of the family may want to say a rosary together at some point, for comfort, even if the dead person is actually Jewish. My role as officiant is often to assist in explaining why (1) the Jews don’t want to be there for the rosary, and may not want to hear much about it, either, and (2) the Catholics really need the rosary for comfort, that they intend no insult to the dead. You can insert many other practices for “rosary.” Sometimes there is no way to accommodate both traditions, and then the challenge is to help the family make choices in such a way that the relationships of the living are preserved intact and the feelings of all are acknowledged.
The best I can tell you is that if you are anticipating a death in your interfaith family, think ahead and think lovingly not only of the person you are about to lose, but of the people with whom you are about to be left behind. Talk with clergy early. Recognize that even if the person who died is of one tradition, family members of another tradition will need support and care. Let the funeral home know early in the process that yours is an interfaith family.
If you are not in the part of the family in charge of planning, recognize that planning a funeral is complicated and is usually done very quickly, without time to consult with every individual in the family. Take responsibility for your needs and emotions. It is OK to say, “I don’t want to participate in X,” but it is better not to combine that with “how dare you suggest such a thing.” Figure out what you can do to meet your needs and to honor the dead.
When my father died, I did not view his body. I sat with my family at the funeral Mass, but I did not take communion. I said “Amen” to prayers that I could affirm. I had a pocket sized book of Psalms with me to read when prayers were said that I couldn’t affirm. In that book I had a copy of the Kaddish; after the graveside service was concluded, I quietly stood beside his grave and said Kaddish. I didn’t make a production of it. At the meal afterwards, when I saw that everything on the table was stuff I did not eat, I asked the kitchen what they had that might work. Fortunately, all unadorned veggies are kosher.
It is possible to navigate these difficult things, but it is easier to do it with support. I wish I had asked my friends and colleagues back home to support me in sitting shiva. I didn’t do that, and regret it now. My shiva time, such as it was, happened on an airplane with my son and it wasn’t enough. This is my own fault: I didn’t ask for what I needed from my Jewish community. I won’t make that mistake again.
The point of all this is to say that funerals are tough for those in interfaith families. Ask for the support of your clergy (of both traditions, if possible.) Tell others what you need, but try to keep in mind that it is hard for everyone, and you may not be able to get everything you want. Be kind not only to others, but also to yourself.
If you are anticipating a loss in your family, I wish you comfort in the arms of family and friends. Ask for support from your faith community in order to get what you need. Know that others have walked this road, so you are not alone.