The Interfaith Family Funeral

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.

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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.

14 thoughts on “The Interfaith Family Funeral”

  1. Very beautiful and important, thank you. I have sat shiva for non-Jewish loved ones of Jews. It doesn’t matter what other members of their families needed to do, they need to sit shiva. I’ve sat shiva for my own non-Jewish family members and I will do it again someday, God willing not for years. I’ve invited non-Jewish family to participate but it was ONLY an invitation so as not to exclude them. They declined and I was not at all hurt.

    When I approached my rabbi some years ago for an earlier family loss he told me to go along with what the family was doing and when I got home to do what I needed with my own community. He was very wise.

  2. Thank you for this Rabbi Ruth. Although this is not imminent, both my husband and I are planning our wills and appropriate papers. This is a discussion that has not come up and needs to be addressed. I am Jewish and he is not. Although he was raised Catholic, he no longer considers himself to be of that religious affiliation. Since he has immersed himself within my family and its culture, although he has no interest in conversion, I would still like to have a Jewish funeral for him, but he has indicated he would like to donate his body to science since both of his parents did that. If that is his choice, I would like him to allow me to have a Jewish memorial service for him and a memorial plaque in the tree of life display in the Schul of my youth where I would like one for myself.

    1. Good for you, thinking this through while you two can still have a discussion about it! That sounds like a very workable plan.

      My only caution would be to check with the shul ahead of time to make sure that their policies allow his name on the plaque. That’s a surprise you would not want to get when you were already hurting.

      1. Good advice Rabbi Ruth, especially since my Schul is Orthodox…I hadn’t given it a thought until I read your reply.

        1. It will help their decision to know that this would not be for him alone, but for the two of you . If someone in an office cites a “policy,” ask to speak with the rabbi. It is possible, at an Orthodox shul , that yours will be the first such request, and so “policies” may be from a while ago. It is OK to ask them to revisit the thinking. I wish you every success with the conversation!

    1. I suspect that a lot of people agree with you. Some practices have taken on a life of their own (sorry) because they are a source of income for funeral homes. For more about that, Google “Jessica Mitford.”

      1. I read her book. And I’m sure it’s for money too. People seem to be going in for cremation more, or cheaper services, so this is getting to be less. Thankfully. Perhaps enough people are dying now who were traumatized as kids that they don’t inflict it — or maybe we’re just getting cheaper!

        A memorial service is just as religious and grieving as an open casket, with less expense for the family and less weirdness.

  3. Thank you Rabbi! I wish I had read this more than two weeks ago. I am an Jewish convert and my 82 year-old Catholic father-in-law, may he rest in peace, passed away on March 3. It was a small family-only service at the funeral home and I felt really, really uncomfortable being the only Jew there. Even before I converted I’ve never liked open caskets, but as we were family we were required to sit up close in the tiny chapel during the service. I tried not to let it bother me, affirming the prayers that I could, as you mentioned above, with my primary focus being there for my grieving wife and family.

    Like Sheila above, my wife and I are updating our wills and last wishes. This experience was an eye opener and I hope to do all I can to soften the inevitable conflicts that will arise in our passing, may it be in many, many, many more years.

    1. I am typing from my phone, so this may be a bit rough, but I wanted to respond quickly. I am so sorry for your loss, and sorry it has been awkward as well. It is hard sometimes to feel like the only Jew in a place that is already difficult. In that situation I try to remember that it is a mitzvah to attend to the dead, and a mitzvah to comfort mourners, and a mitzvah to honor parents… In other words, by being in that place and sitting with the discomfort, you were being both a good son-in-law and a good Jew.

      I wish you and your spouse all the comfort that friends and family can give.

    2. I hope you and your wife are able to come to a mutually agreeable resolution that will give each of you peace. My husband and I have come to this agreement and found through our attorney that having it documented is extremely important so that no interference by any other than the deceased will have an effect on the end of life wishes.

      I wish you and your wife Shalom in determining your final wishes. That is the last gift we are able to give one another.

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