Nearly two years ago, Rabbi Jillian Cameron stood in a Catholic church in a deeply religious community in Massachusetts and gave the eulogy for her grandfather at the request of her relatives.
When her grandfather’s casket was later lowered into the ground, Cameron’s mother leaned over to her and whispered, “Can you stay and say Mourner’s Kaddish with me?”
Though Cameron’s mother never converted to Judaism, she raised a Jewish family with her Jewish spouse. In that moment of deep sorrow, she wanted a meaningful spiritual connection, Cameron recalled.
For interfaith families, death and mourning rituals are yet another lifecycle event that needs to be carefully addressed, but one with which the wider Jewish community must also grapple. As demographics change, how Jewish cemeteries accommodate or do not accommodate interfaith couples will confront cemetery boards across the country.
Cameron, director of InterfaithFamily in Boston, said couples frequently ask her where they can be buried and if their spouses can be buried with them.
The easiest way to find out is to look at the cemetery charter, advised Morris Rodenstein, Jewish community services counselor at Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Prince George’s County.
Mount Lebanon was established as a strictly Jewish cemetery more than 50 years ago with thousands of burial plots for the region’s Jewish population. Congregations bought plots to sell to their congregants. Its charter cannot be changed.
About a decade ago, Rodenstein estimates, two area congregations bought plots in an interfaith section that is across a narrow road from the Jewish-only cemetery. There, interfaith couples can be buried side by side according to their preferred customs. There are roughly 200 plots available in that section.
This is in response to a trend that David Zinner, vice president of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, has seen in the last five years, as Jews say they want their non-Jewish partners buried next to them.
“Most typically, cemeteries carve out a new piece, make a border with edges or benches or a pathway so that people who are more into Halacha” have their burial spaces kept separate, Zinner said. “It’s possible to do if you have enough land and you’re creative enough. There are plenty of cemeteries that say to you, ‘Only Jews can be buried here,’ but when push comes to shove, who’s really checking?”
That burden rests mostly on the congregations which sell the plots, said Rodenstein, but Dignity Memorial, which oversees Mount Lebanon, does ask families if the deceased is Jewish.
The issue can become complicated when plots are bequeathed to family members who may not be Jewish. If a family “pulls one over” on the cemetery, then there is not much that can be done, said Rodenstein. That is why it’s better to address the issues in advance. Rodenstein encourages couples to complete a personal planning guide early on.
“People are thinking about this more openly, both in terms of ritual and burial space,” said Cameron. “The associations that exist around the country are having these practical conversations. All these different types of people are going to have to think about this even more consciously, because it will become more of an issue as time goes on.”
Rabbi Maurice Harris, rabbi and senior educator for the national office of InterfaithFamily, has been approached by leaders of synagogues and burial societies across the country, asking how to adjust their regulations to accommodate changing demographics.
“I haven’t encountered a rabbi who calls me and says we don’t have any place to bury a non-Jewish loved one,” said Harris. “The controversy is what kind of religious symbol can we permit on the grave marker, or can we have a clergy member of another faith administer at the service, or how does patrilineal descent factor in?”
He continued, “What happens when you have a Conservative- or Orthodox-leaning person in a very small community who has done their part for years pitching in around the cemetery and may not be as comfortable with [being buried in an interfaith section]?”
Zinner said, “It depends.” It is possible to consecrate individual graves, though there is a desire for contiguousness in traditional Jewish cemeteries.
“Jewish cemeteries,” Zinner added, “started in about 1000 … when Christians evolved to burying in churchyards and Jews started burying in their own areas [outside the city boundaries], with some notable exceptions in Palestine, like the Mount of Olives.”
“Intermarriage,” Harris speculated, “is still new enough that we haven’t really hit the point where we’re seeing lots of people in their 80s and 90s who were intermarried, or whose children are intermarried, are needing burials.” But in 30 years’ time, that could change.
He doesn’t believe that there will be a large problem, as the majority of synagogues in the middle of the religious spectrum — at least where he lives on the West Coast, which he says trends liberal — already have options for interfaith couples to be buried together.
Locally, Temple Micah, a Reform congregation in Washington, addressed this issue by buying approximately 400 plots in the Jewish and interfaith sections of Mount Lebanon.
According to Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah, the decision to purchase plots in the interfaith section was straightforward.
“Since the Jewish part of the cemetery was governed under bylaws that said it was for Jewish people to be buried there, we did not feel that it was proper to change that rule to have a non-Jewish person buried there,” said Zemel.
“We wanted to retain the integrity of the cemetery and our solution was to purchase a second section to be governed according to the wishes of the people buried there.”
Zemel said for his congregation it worked well, particularly because the congregation addressed the issue years ago “calmly, rather than at a time of stress with a lot of interfaith families. In that sense, I’m very, very glad our community was proactive in this decision.”