Earlier in my career, I wrote so many articles about neglected cemeteries, Jewish funeral homes and Jewish burial societies that my editor joked I was the “dead”-beat reporter.
For years, I’ve followed the plight of Bayside Cemetery, a more- than-150-year-old Jewish burial ground in Ozone Park, Queens, that has been vandalized and inadequately maintained for decades and is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.
And yet, while it’s been in the back of my mind for a while, I’ve never combined my cemetery obsession with my intermarriage passion.
Perhaps that stems from my fear of mine and my husband’s mortality or the fact that many of my Jewish relatives have opted for cremation (yes, in violation of Jewish law, but it’s a very secular family), so I have no family burial ground that I visit or feel any special desire to have as my posthumous home. Plus, while my lapsed Catholic husband no longer wants a priest to officiate at his eventual funeral he also is more inclined toward cremation than burial.
While I have yet to do the requisite research, I know that the question of where interfaith couples can be buried is a huge and growing issue, particularly because Jewish cemeteries traditionally have not allowed gentiles to be buried in their plots. Increasing numbers of cemeteries are setting aside special sections for interfaith couples. For example, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts in 1999 established a new cemetery, Beit Olam, in part for the purpose of accommodating interfaith couples along with all Jews that are willing to be buried alongside them. According to information the organization posted on InterfaithFamily.com, it “reached capacity 23 years ahead of schedule largely due to the growing interfaith Jewish community in the area” and is, as a result, in the midst of a major expansion to add 7,700 more plots.
A few months ago, as I wrote about in a larger article on changes in the Conservative movement, the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued what I thought was a remarkably sensitive ruling allowing spaces to be set aside for interfaith couples, but requiring them to be at least six feet away from the rest of the cemetery.
Interestingly, the decision is coming under some attack from the left, with Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform temple in Park Slope, Brooklyn, telling a Jewish Publication That Shall Not Be Named (hey, why should I boost the Google rank of a rival?) that it “ended up creating a very similar feeling of segregation that interfaith families often feel inside communities when they’re living.”
A blogger on OurJewishCommunity.org, an online “congregation” for progressive Jews, responds to the decision and article by writing, “Has the Jewish community, which has often made non-Jewish partners in interfaith families feel excluded, made a decision to further exclude non-Jewish family members, even after death?!”
She seems to fail to recognize that allowing a separate section where Jews and their gentile spouses can be buried together, while maybe offensive to those who seek full inclusion, is certainly more inclusive than the status quo of not allowing gentiles anywhere in a Jewish cemetery.
In any event, I promise a fuller report in the coming months as I (excuse the pun) dig more deeply into this topic.