Interfaith parents want to be buried in own cemeteries

My mom is Jewish, my dad is Catholic, and my brother and I were raised Jewish. Last month they told us they had recently written their ethical wills and each plan to be buried in the cemetery of their own faith. I was so stunned that I said nothing. I just assumed my parents would be buried side by side! I’m mad at them, even though I know it is their decision. I’m hurt and feel like they didn’t even consider how this could impact their children. My brother is upset, too, but he is very quiet and would never speak up. What should I do? — Hurt Daughter

Dear Hurt Daughter: I’m so sorry you learned this in such a startling way. It’s hard to think about losing parents, and their news complicates your pain. Yes, your parents do get to make their own end-of-life plans, but I suspect they didn’t think about it from your perspective. It sounds like they simply announced their plans with the intention of giving you and your brother a heads-up. Since you did not respond in the moment, they probably assumed everything was fine.

You should definitely discuss this with them, and it would be best if you and your brother did so together. You could use the moral support, and he could use the practice speaking up about his feelings. I suggest the two of you share with each other how you feel and what is most painful about this news. Then consider what you wish would happen. Hard as it is, imagine what you would want at that difficult time when one of your parents dies. Do you both hope a rabbi would be there to give comfort? Would a rabbi be a comfort to your dad if your mother should go first, or would he want Christian clergy?

Once you and your brother get your hopes and worries out in the open with each other, make an appointment with your rabbi. Discuss all of your concerns and preferences. Ask about what other interfaith couples have done. How have their kids handled burials in different cemeteries? Can the rabbi prepare you for what a Catholic funeral is like or refer you to someone who can? Would she suggest that you sit shiva? If your mother dies first and you sit shiva, how will that be for your dad? Does your rabbi suggest you do something special that would support him?

After these in-depth discussions, I would hope that you and your brother feel prepared to have a conversation with your parents.

First, you will have identified your feelings and how to express them. You might say, for example, “Mom and Dad, we were so stunned by your announcement about your funerals that we couldn’t even speak up at the time. The thought of losing you is so painful. We are upset because we can’t even imagine you not being buried side by side.”

Second, you will be able to outline what you most want: “We want you to think about how we feel and consider changing your burial plans.”

And finally, you’ll be equipped with options from talking to your rabbi: “Rabbi says that we could sit shiva for Dad even though he isn’t Jewish, because we are the ones who will need comfort,” or “Rabbi says that we can go to a Catholic funeral and she will help us learn about what is involved,” or “Rabbi says Dad can have a Catholic service at a church but be buried in the Jewish cemetery.”

Don’t be afraid to let your parents know that you love them and that is why this issue is so hurtful. Allow them some time to think all of this over and discuss it with each other and their clergy before they come to a decision.

Finally, I want to tell you what my rabbi once said: “Funerals are for the living. The dead don’t care anymore.” The same can be said of other rituals around death, including burial.

No matter what your parents decide, you and your brother can continue speaking with your rabbi to determine which steps will comfort you and help you accept their choices.

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Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.