Contemporary Issues in Death, Burial and Mourning
Did the ancient rabbinic sages have to contemplate the situation of an Orthodox Jewish woman mourning the death of her Catholic mother? Of a Jewish man saying kaddish for his late wife? A devout Buddhist? Although Jewish tradition until recently has not anticipated these specific scenarios, it does inform and lay the groundwork for the way we approach such questions today.
Jewish tradition has had comparatively little to say about mourning for non-Jewish family members, although it does provide some guidance to converts regarding how they might mourn parents (in the most traditional formulation, as they would close friends but not relatives), and to the parents of converts to other religions, who mourn the death of their children as any other Jewish parents would. Today, an increasing number of Jews live in families, immediate or extended, composed of individuals from more than one religion, raising new and expanded questions -- and stimulating new answers -- during times of death and mourning.
Converts are not strictly obligated to observe mourning rituals for non-Jewish relatives, but many authorities (and virtually all liberal rabbis) do permit them to observe any and all Jewish mourning customs as they would for Jewish relatives. Most liberal Jews who have lost a non-Jewish loved one also will attend non-Jewish funerals, wakes, and the like. They may struggle with practices with which they are no longer comfortable or with family members who feel estranged because of their differing religious choices.
Intermarried individuals face additional challenges -- for example, where and how they will be buried, whether they will be buried side-by-side with their spouse (since many Jewish cemeteries only bury Jews, or have separate areas for non-Jewish relatives), and to what extent a rabbi will take part in the non-Jewish funeral of someone married to a synagogue member.
Burial in a Jewish Cemetery
There are many laws and customs governing the burial of Jews separately from non-Jews. Cemeteries adhering to these practices often permit burial only of those who are Jewish as defined by the longstanding traditional definition (that is, born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism under the auspices of Jewish law).
Cemeteries or special parts of cemeteries owned by non-Orthodox congregations often allow somewhat more latitude in determining "who is a Jew" and/or who may be buried where; some have special sections in which Jews and non-Jewish spouses may be buried together.
Surprisingly, one of the most common "Jewish trivia" questions asked of rabbis is whether it is true that people with tattoos or body piercings cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. While Jewish tradition frowns on things that can be construed as mutilation of one's body, none of these things represents a barrier to burial in even the most traditionally run cemetery.
Jewish law does not prescribe any rites of mourning for a child less than 30 days old -- but many people find it meaningful and important to have some kind of mourning rite, even a funeral, for the loss of a late-term fetus, a stillbirth, and certainly a neonatal death, and rabbis are increasingly facilitating such processes. All of the liberal movements have produced extensive writings applying Jewish burial and mourning traditions to these tragic situations and articulating rituals of burial, mourning, and comfort for individuals, families, and communities to use.
Cremation, Autopsies, and Organ Donation
Jewish tradition may be "known" to be opposed to cremation, autopsies, and organ donation -- but in two of these three cases, popular knowledge is partially or entirely incorrect. The principle of kevod ha-met (treating the dead, and dead bodies, with honor and respect) is applied to all three of these issues, in different ways.
Cremation is traditionally forbidden, on the grounds that it violates the requirement to bury the body as it is in the earth. Some authorities go so far as to forbid funeral rites for one who was cremated and prohibit family members from observing any of the rites of mourning, including the recitation of the Kaddish. Others permit a rabbi to officiate at the funeral but not the burial of ashes. Many liberal rabbis will officiate at a funeral for someone who was cremated. Some Jews argue that to practice cremation after millions of Jewish bodies were cremated in the Nazi death camps is simply unthinkable.
Jewish tradition forbids autopsies in a general way on the grounds that the body is sacred. However, they are permitted in two specific cases: where the law requires it, or if it could help others who are immediately suffering from the same disease or condition. Given the realities of modern communication, it is more and more the case that an autopsy will in fact be of immediate use to another individual facing death.
Organ donation, long regarded as mutilation of the body, is understood by most contemporary authorities as permissible because it brings honor to the dead by bringing healing to the living. Though some traditional authorities still forbid it, many argue that organ donation is affirmatively a mitzvah--a positive obligation--to donate organs or tissues for lifesaving purposes. Still, the belief that organ donation is forbidden by Jewish law has a tenacious hold on the minds of many Jews, traditional and liberal alike.
Suicide is forbidden under Jewish law and is seen as a grave sin, because it abrogates for human beings the right to determine their own life span. Suicide also appears to be in defiance of the notion that our lives and our bodies are a divine gift, instead implying that we are entitled to exercise complete control over our own bodies and our own deaths.
Martyrdom -- the taking of one's own life or allowing it to be taken rather than being forced to engage in "idol worship," for example -- is the notable exception in Jewish law.
Jewish law takes suicide so seriously that it technically prohibits any rites of mourning for someone who has committed suicide, yet the general tendency of Jewish legal development over the ages has been to all but define true suicide out of existence. That is, an assumption is made, unless there is incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, that the individual who took her or his own life was not of sound mind -- making space for full compassion for the deceased and for the family, and allowing the complete set of Jewish burial and mourning practices.
Reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.com.