interfaith family funerals   Leave a comment

My introduction to my husband Mark’s large Italian family came at a wedding, and my first impression was I would never be able to meet them all, never mind remember all their names.  My husband is one of five children, his father one of four, and his mother one of eight.  We sat at a table with some of his siblings, their spouses and, for some reason, the people who made the cake.  Other nearby tables were filled with aunts, uncles, and cousins.  A few years later I was reintroduced as a prospective family member… at his Aunt Vicky’s funeral.  I had never met Vicky nor had I ever attended a Catholic funeral.   Or an open casket wake.   I found both events unnerving. At the reception I kept encountering sad-faced people congratulating me telling me they were looking forward to our wedding.  After each of these exchanges, I had to track down either Mark or his mother to find out a) who had just been talking to me and b) if that person would actually be invited to the wedding.   My strongest memory of the day, however, was my mother-in-law’s distress over her sister’s appearance in the coffin.  “It doesn’t look like Vicky,” she repeated many times.  “It just doesn’t look like her.”   The whole experience felt surreal to me; I didn’t know how to act, what to do, or where to look, and the open casket made me extremely uncomfortable.

Soon after our engagement, Mark and I went to an Interfaith support group at my parents’ synagogue.  We were the only unmarried couple attending, and we left astonished at things the others hadn’t discussed before tying the knot – religious education of children, holiday celebrations, even details of their weddings – and felt fairly smug about our own preparations.  We would have a Jewish wedding, a Jewish home, and Jewish children.  We would go to Mark’s parents’ home for Christmas and Easter, making sure the children to come knew we celebrated with Nana and Pa because we loved them, but that Santa and the Easter Bunny wouldn’t ever visit our house.   My father-in-law’s continued teenage rebellion ensured we would have the Jewish wedding we wanted, and one comment by the matriarch of my mother-in-law’s family squelched any grumblings that might have occurred otherwise.  Aunt Connie, a deeply religious Catholic born in Italy, attended Mass several times a week, and said a weekly novena to thank G-d for sparing a younger sister from tuberculosis.  When asked what she thought about Mark marrying a Jewish girl, she said simply, “I’m looking forward to going to a bar mitzvah of one of my own.”  End of discussion.

One talk Mark and I never had despite all our preparation concerned how our families dealt with death.  My grandfather had passed away several months before I met Mark, and I had attended the funeral of a beloved temple member as a teenager, but even after Aunt Vicky’s funeral, the subject never came up.  It certainly wasn’t talked about when we made our plans for the future. That held careers, travel, and a family of our own.  We married, argued about Christmas trees in the house – to Mark they symbolized of the joy of the holiday; they made me feel like an outsider in my own home.  We celebrated Shabbat, held yearly Passover seders, and joined a synagogue.  Then came what we refer to now as the Year of the Dying Grandmothers.

Mark’s mother called in early August, telling us that if we wanted to say goodbye to Aunt Connie, we needed to go as soon as possible as her heart was failing.  If we waited, it might be too late.  We went that weekend.  Connie knew her death was imminent and was at peace with the fact.   Her one regret was in leaving Uncle Archie, her husband of many years.  “He’s having a hard time with this,” she told us. “I’m worried about him.”  We left knowing it would be our last visit and sad that she wouldn’t see the bar mitzvah she had so wanted.

At the beginning of September, my maternal grandmother died.  She suffered from depression and had given up on life many years before.  Her death, while not unexpected, was sudden.  As my mother is an only child with out-of-state family, Grandma Lil’s funeral was attended by my parents, Mark and I, and my sister.  The rabbi who had performed our wedding ceremony read the short funeral service, and we went home to sit shiva.  As sparsely as the funeral was attended, the shiva at my parents’ house overflowed out of two rooms with friends who came to support and mourn with my parents.  Three weeks later, my paternal grandmother died after suffering a stroke.  This funeral had greater attendance.  My father’s sisters, some of their cousins, and a few aunts and uncles came.   We went to the cemetery for a short service and out to lunch with Grandma’s family where we shared memories of her.   My parents sat shiva again, but we had to get home.  When Mark and I walked into our house late that afternoon and saw the light blinking on the answering machine, we didn’t even have to listen to the six progressively more upset messages from Mark’s mother to know Aunt Connie had died.  We just knew.

Connie’s wake and funeral were beautiful.  And enormous.  Hundreds of people, both family and friends, walked through the funeral home to pay their respects.  The Mass was held in the church where Connie attended and was conducted by a priest who knew her personally.  As others stood, knelt, and took communion, I said a silent Kaddish feeling both bewildered and overwhelmed.  At the reception after the funeral, family and friends ate and shared stories of Connie’s generosity, religious beliefs, and love of family.  Then everyone went home.   End of funeral, end of story.

Over the last few years, these events have repeated themselves, and I have had time to reflect on my feelings about the differences in Jewish and Catholic grieving traditions.  My grandfather’s younger brother died a few years ago.  My mother-in-law passed away less than two years after the birth of our son, her twelfth grandchild.  Several of Mark’s aunts and uncles are also now gone.  While Mark’s family finds comfort in open caskets, ornate floral displays, and Catholic rituals, I do not.  When my grandfather died, one of my father’s childhood friends sent an enormous bouquet of long-stemmed red roses to my grandmother’s house.  None of us knew what to do with them; they were beautiful but superfluous.  In addition, spending hours at a wake with a body makes me very uncomfortable.  I don’t want my last memories of a loved one to be of them still and silent in a box.  I would rather remember the person alive and whole.  I also find the funeral Mass itself to be much too impersonal.  When performed by a parish priest who knows the person and the family, it can be beautiful.  Unfortunately, in our family this has been the exception rather than the rule.  To me, most of the services I have attended reflect more on the Church’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ than in mourning and celebrating the person who died.  The main problem I have is that the whole process just feels backwards.  People surround the family before the funeral, when they are shell-shocked in their grief rather than afterward, when support and kind words are necessary to help you go on with life.

Several years ago, Mark converted to Judaism.   I was and continue to be surprised how much this meant to me.  Before we married, my family’s rabbi asked if Mark planned to convert.  “Ask him,” I answered.   “His choice, not mine.”  As we had always attended synagogue and celebrated holidays together, I didn’t know it would affect and touch me as much as it has.  In many ways we are still the same people we were before; in one more defined way we have changed.  Now when we attend services together it is both as Jews.  We lost Mark’s father this past December, very suddenly and unexpectedly.  After we returned home from the wake and the funeral Mass, we had a shiva at our house.  Our friends and chosen family gathered with us to hear stories about Dad and help Mark with his grief.   We say Kaddish for Dad at services on Shabbat, and will acknowledge his yartzeit yearly in the future.  This time, I found it easier to grieve our loss.  This time I felt I could share more in the sorrow of losing someone we loved as I had a way to express what I felt in a religious context.  I am glad we now have this outlet as a family.   I know it will be needed in the future.

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Posted September 15, 2010 by wordsaremylife in random thoughts, religion

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