Can I have Kaddish said for me if I'm buried in a non-Jewish cemetery?

March 18, 2010

Question: I am 65, I married out and my husband and I plan to be buried in a non-denominational cemetery. But I would still like to have Kaddish said over me. Is that possible and how could it be arranged?(Question)

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Burying the dead is a mitzvah based on a biblical verse (Deuteronomy 21:23). However the Bible does not specify where the burial of a loved one ought to take place. While it could be argued that Abraham’s purchase of the Machpelah cave as a family burial plot is a precedent for consecrated burial ground we find that Jacob buried his beloved wife Rachel in a lone grave on the side of the road to Bethlehem.

Yet despite the lack of an explicit biblical verse defining a Jewish burial ground, it has been the Jewish tradition for millennia to inter our deceased in what the rabbis called kever Yisrael; a Jewish plot. The idea behind kever Yisrael is the belief that a Jew remains united with his or her people in death as in life. For this reason, Jews are buried in clearly marked Jewish cemeteries designated exclusively for members of our faith.

In your situation this would mean that while you have a right to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, your non-Jewish husband does not, which is why I understand you have opted for a non-denominational cemetery.

Your children however would still be permitted — and according to some rabbinic authorities even obligated — to recite Kaddish in your memory. Kaddish is not so much a prayer to honour the dead as it is a prayer to atone for their failings. The idea behind Kaddish is that when one’s child enables an entire congregation to extol God’s glory — as is the case when they respond to the words of Kaddish — this accrues great merit to the soul of the deceased and helps to atone for the transgressions committed during a lifetime. However, it would not be appropriate for Kaddish to be recited at the non-denominational cemetery itself either at the time of your burial or anytime afterwards.

If you do not have children, you could still arrange for a Jewish relative or close friend to recite Kaddish after your passing.

Yet far more important than Kaddish after one’s death is positive Jewish commitment during one’s lifetime. Marrying out is a serious break with your people and your faith but it most certainly does not spell the end of your Jewish identity.

Every day of life is an opportunity to rediscover this identity. Judaism is not an all or nothing religion. Every positive step counts and every mitzvah has religious significance. Make the most of it.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Your question highlights the fact — obvious to many, but disputed by others — that a Jew who falls in love with a non-Jewish partner does not automatically lose their Jewish identity but can still value their heritage and wish to maintain it.

The short answer is yes, of course. You are still Jewish and can be mourned in the Jewish way. Moreover, saying Kaddish is not just for the sake of the deceased but also for the sake of those who will mourn your passing, some of whom will no doubt be Jewish, be it your siblings, children or others — and it is also appropriate to do what is comforting for those who survive you.

This would apply equally to other rituals such as sitting shivah, mentioning your name in synagogue at Yizkor and lighting a yarhzeit candle. Moreover, even though it will be in a non-denominational cemetery, you could also have a rabbi take the funeral service.

Naturally, this would have to be with your husband’s consent, for if he outlived you, he would be the main mourner and his feelings would be paramount. Most non-Jews are not averse to Jewish customs, especially if they have lived with them for many years through their Jewish partner. However, he might not have such a positive attitude if your family shunned him when you got married, which is why it is important for relatives to stay on good terms with those who make marital choices with which they disagree, but should accept once they go ahead and become a reality.

You might like to know that there are now some Jewish cemeteries that will allow the burial of mixed-faith couples. They do so, first, because if the Jewish partner wants to be in a Jewish cemetery, it is wrong to split up in death those who have been together in life. Second, the assumption that the burial of a non-Jew will “contaminate” a Jewish cemetery is not only highly racist but also unhistorical.

But whatever your wishes, the key aspect is to discuss them in advance with your family, both to check that you are not requesting something that might upset them, and so that they know in advance what to do and how to honour your last wishes.

The hallmark of a good funeral is whether it helps the mourners cope with their loss.

Last updated: 12:31pm, March 18 2010