The man at the other end of Ed Marks’ phone was distraught. He’d asked his rabbi an off-the-cuff question about burying non-Jewish spouses in the temple cemetery and the answer—“I won’t do it”—had forced him to contemplate how he and his wife would spend eternity.
“We met in college,” he explained to Marks, a Cincinnati lawyer who had spearheaded a move to bring twenty-three Jewish cemeteries in the area under one administrative umbrella. “We fell in love. She loves going to services at the synagogue with me, but she also loves her Christianity, and it would kill her parents if she converted. I want to be with my wife forever—and we don’t want to be in a secular cemetery, where we don’t fit. What do we do about getting buried?”
Such concern about the company you’ll keep when you’re no longer breathing may strike some as peculiar, but truth is, most Jews want to be buried alongside not only loved ones but with other Jews. There’s something comforting about knowing that we’re going to be laid to rest surrounded by headstones embellished with Stars of David and Hebrew letters, as well as the very people who once surrounded us in shul. And, as Marks puts it, it’s also comforting knowing that the cemetery won’t be sold like a used car to a corporation that might dishonor longstanding Jewish burial traditions for profit.
Interfaith families don’t have this guarantee. Although a 1963 CCAR responsum written by Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof asserts that “we have a moral obligation to be concerned, when needed, with funerals of non-Jews…especially when there is a special relationship or situation involved” and that “we should not object” if a Jewish man who owns a cemetery plot wishes his “gentile spouse or their children buried” there, the Reform Movement does not have an official policy on the subject.
“Each community has its own rules, its own way of responding to the challenges of the world, so what you get is a pastiche of many different customs,” says Rabbi Mark Washofsky, professor of rabbinics at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati and chair of the CCAR’s Responsa Committee.
Nowhere in the Torah or Talmud does it say that Jews and non-Jews cannot be buried together. That’s because, from a Jewish perspective, a cemetery does not have the legal status of a synagogue or a school.
Read through Genesis and you’ll discover that our forefathers and mothers were buried in a variety of environments: Sarah and Abraham in a family cave (Gen 23:19, 25:9); Rachel on the road to Bethlehem, her grave marked by a stone pillar (Gen 35:19-20); and Joseph in a coffin (after being embalmed) in Egypt (Gen 50:26).
“You needed to be buried,” says Nili Fox, professor of Bible and Archaeology at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. “Biblical law demands that even an executed criminal is properly buried, as the corpse is an affront to God [Deut 21:23]. But there is nothing that says you can’t be buried with pagans, with Canaanites, or with any other ites. That seems in and of itself significant.”
The all-Jewish cemetery is a custom that developed in the diaspora. Establishing a cemetery was among the first actions Jews took upon settling in a new community. Because intermarriage was not practiced in ancient and medieval times, the issue of whether it was permissible to bury a non-Jew in a Jewish cemetery did not arise. As the centuries passed, the custom of all-Jewish cemeteries began to be perceived as binding “as a law imposed by the voice of God at Sinai,” Rabbi Washofsky says. “There’s great reluctance to change custom, especially if the custom does not appear to violate any major intent of Jewish law.”
Linda Sosnowitz, past president of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue (BHS), discovered just how binding this prohibitive custom had become several years ago when she embarked on a mission to purchase cemetery space on behalf of her fifty-year-old congregation. It took nearly 100 phone calls to cemeteries from New Jersey to Westchester County to find a match for the members’ needs. Cemetery administrators who answered yes to Sosnowitz’s first question—“Can you sell [our Reform congregation] 200 plots?”—invariably said no to questions two and three: “Can we bury members and immediate family members who are not Jewish in the same space, and can we bury the remains of members who choose to be cremated?” (For more on Jewish views concerning cremation see “Debatable: Is Cremation an Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews?” in Reform Judaism Spring 2009, and visit the CCAR website.)
Sosnowitz found only three exceptions. One administrator would let Brooklyn Heights Synagogue have the space on a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” basis, an offer she considered deeply offensive. A second administered a cemetery in an undesirable industrial area. The administrators at Maimonides Cemetery in Elmont, New York fit the bill, offering to sell BHS a piece of undeveloped land fenced off from the rest of the cemetery which could be used to bury non-Jews with Jewish relatives. The requirements were in line with what BHS was already planning for the space: bottomless grave liners, no burials on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, officiation solely by Jewish clergy, and markers with Jewish symbols only.
In January 2007, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue purchased an area that could accommodate the 200 plots, fencing it off to create the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue Beit Chaverim Section at Maimonides Cemetery.
Not every congregation has to go to such lengths to establish a cemetery. Temple of Israel in Wilmington, the oldest synagogue in North Carolina, received one as a gift this past May. The congregation’s own cemetery had been full for a quarter of a century, so members were being buried in a nondenominational cemetery. Then, a number of months ago, two couples, Dotty and Irv Freedland and Beth and Walter Pancoe, purchased a piece of land which would hold approximately 900 graves and named it the New Jewish Cemetery. Temple of Israel received a portion of land large enough for 300 graves; another third is being given to the Conservative synagogue in town, and the last third to another Jewish organization in Wilmington.
“One of the first questions [prospective members] would ask us is, ‘Do you have a cemetery?’” says Temple of Israel president Richard Mandel. “Today,” he responds happily, “the answer is yes.”
In Boca Raton, Florida, Temple Beth El is also proud of its new addition: the final phase of a mausoleum (see tbemausoleum.org), which accommodates almost 3,000 crypts on its ten-acre campus, as well as 1,120 niches designed for cremated remains. The Beth El initiative is the only mausoleum in the U.S. on temple grounds.
Before the mausoleum was built, members of Temple Beth El who sought out a burial plot were on their own. Of the area’s for-profit Jewish cemeteries, two were owned by Service Corporation International (SCI) in Houston, the world’s largest funeral services firm. In 2001, both the State of Florida and affected families sued these cemeteries for allegedly overselling plots, burying people in the wrong graves, and digging up and dumping remains in the woods to make room for more bodies. The suit was settled in December 2003, when SCI agreed to pay $100 million.
While work on the mausoleum was underway before the lawsuit, the scandal reinforced the congregation’s belief that it is important to have one’s own place where families can feel secure laying their relatives to rest. “Our temple prides itself on [serving families] starting at the life cycle of birth, and, when the time comes to end that life cycle, you still have temple ground that you’re here on,” says executive director Jan Catalfumo.
And because the mausoleum is so close to the synagogue, adds Catalfumo, “people who have family there can go before Shabbat and say a prayer for their loved one.”
Non-Jewish spouses of temple members can be buried in the mausoleum with certain caveats: only Jewish clergy can officiate at services, funerals cannot be held on holidays or on the Sabbath, and any symbols on the crypts and niches must be Jewish.
Those who preside over cemeteries and cemetery committees say it is critical to establish carefully articulated rules and communicate them thoughtfully. At The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom (AIBS) in Louisville, Kentucky, this lesson was learned the hard way, after the cemetery caretaker noticed a new headstone with a cross carved into it.
The caretaker notified Rabbi Joe Rapport, who contacted the congregant whose spouse was buried there. The congregant had chosen the headstone out of respect for his loved one, and “didn’t understand how anyone else would care,” Rabbi Rapport recalls.
But people did care. While board members tried to be understanding about interfaith families, some felt strongly that placing a cross on a tombstone changed the nature of the cemetery. “I don’t think that anyone meant to say that a cross was an offensive image, but you have to be able to appreciate that, for some people, a cross symbolizes something that can be viewed very positively, and for others, offensively,” Rabbi Rapport says.
The congregant agreed to replace the headstone, but that wasn’t the end of the story. The temple then conducted a study to determine other congregations’ cemetery practices. With that information in hand, in 2004 AIBS published the fifteen-page booklet, “A Sacred Pilgrimage: A Guide to Jewish Practices on Death and Mourning,” which discusses how to interact with someone who is dying, whether children should attend a funeral, the role of the rabbi, and—the last entry—“cemetery rules.” The booklet, with the cemetery bylaws and fee structure on separate sheets of paper, is offered free of charge to anyone interested in purchasing an AIBS burial plot. Those planning a funeral also receive a copy.
“The overriding issue when someone has died ought to be pursuing a path of peace, making the situation better,” Rabbi Rapport says. “This overarching principle provides a good basis for us to do what we can to be welcoming and supportive of families in times of need, and still be respectful of the place and the other members who have buried or will be burying their Jewish dead in the cemetery.”
Congregations can learn more about cemetery policies by reading the Union for Reform Judaism guide, "To Everything There Is a Season: Congregational Funeral and Cemetery Policies and Practices."
Rabbi Michael Dolgin of 1,700-member Temple Sinai in Toronto spent years working quietly with a local Jewish cemetery to ensure there would be space for interfaith congregants.
Temple Sinai owns space in a large communal Jewish cemetery that doesn’t allow for the burial of non-Jews. In the past when an interfaith family affiliated with Temple Sinai needed a plot, they went to a nondenominational public cemetery or the only other cemetery that allowed interfaith couples to be buried side by side: Holy Blossom Memorial Park, run by Holy Blossom Temple, another large Reform congregation in Toronto.
When the Holy Blossom cemetery reached capacity, Rabbi Dolgin and Temple Sinai appealed to Toronto’s large communal Jewish cemetery, not just for Temple Sinai members, but on behalf of all the local synagogues faced with the question of where to bury members’ non-Jewish relatives.
“We had an excellent conversation,” Rabbi Dolgin says, “and as a result, the cemetery administration surveyed all the organizations that owned sites in this Jewish cemetery, from ultra-Orthodox to secular and everything in between, asking them about the perceived need and importance of providing a location for side-by-side burial of interfaith couples. In traditional Toronto it’s a controversial issue. They wouldn’t address the need unless they could see that a broad segment of the Jewish community was supportive.”
Ultimately, cemetery administrators told Rabbi Dolgin that “there wasn’t enough of a positive response to address the issue”—a reluctance the rabbi attributes to “an irrational fear that if we bury non-Jews next to Jews, everyone’s going to run out and marry non-Jews.”
Temple Sinai’s cemetery chairperson soon learned of another option: a Jewish communal cemetery in Toronto that allows the owner of each section to maintain its own bylaws. The temple now owns space in this cemetery and plans to invite other local Reform congregations to purchase plots in its section.
Concern for the burial needs of all Jews also gave rise to the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, Inc., a consortium of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox cemeteries in Cincinnati which now owns and operates twenty-three cemeteries under a single administration, with each affiliated cemetery governed by its own denominational representatives.
One of those cemeteries, established in 1821, is the oldest Jewish burial ground west of the Allegheny Mountains. Ed Marks can see it from his office window: it’s what helped inspire him to work with the presidents of the city’s two oldest Reform congregations to preserve a piece of Cincinnati’s Jewish history.
“We saw cemeteries that needed help,” Marks says. “We heard the call of our ancestors. And [by doing this] I realized I could teach my children, ‘This is what Jews do. They take care of one another.’”
The process took nearly twelve years. Some of the cemeteries belonged to synagogues that no longer existed and had been maintained by trusts or by the goodness of their neighbors. Others belonged to synagogues that were struggling to maintain them. Banding together made them all stronger.
“We agreed to maintain separate ritual rules for the different Jewish traditions,” Marks says. “But we have one crew, one administration, and one price structure. We handle the sale and installation of gravestones, and because of volume we make them available at a lower cost to the community.”
Equally important, they make sure that there is a place for everyone to be buried—including the Jewish husband who wanted assurance that he could spend eternity with his beloved Christian wife.
Debby Waldman is the author of two picture books based on Jewish folk tales, A Sack Full of Feathers (2006) and Clever Rachel, out this fall from Orca Book Publishers.