A Jewish Burial?

Dear Rabbi Simon,

I have befriended and regularly visit an elderly woman (she is in her 90s). She is totally irreligious and was married to a non-Jewish man who died many years ago. She has no children. Her only remaining family is her niece (on her husband’s side) who isn’t Jewish. As she is inexorably aging (aren’t we all?), I have been wondering how I would go about trying to make sure she has a Jewish funeral. I fear that if left to the niece then she won’t. Who can I discuss this with? If she is cremated, is that a problem?

Thank you, Rachael

Dear Rachael,

As a Jew, it is proper for her to have a Jewish burial, even though it seems questionable if any next of kin will–even in the future–want to visit her gravesite. Moreover, if she does not make arrangements for a Jewish burial (and funeral), I suspect she will go down the cremation route, which is definitely forbidden according to Torah law, and offensive to Jewish tradition and sensibilities.

So, if you are able to help facilitate Jewish burial arrangements, that would be the right and praiseworthy thing to do. The question is, to what extent should you try to bring this about? I would suggest that it is important for you to have the complete support of the woman herself. There will be a cost involved, as burial schemes normally work as a kind of insurance plan, in which the member pays annually. The Burial Society hopes the members live a long time–and presumably the member hopes for the same. If a woman in her 90s wants to join, it will cost. I think you need to get the support of her niece, too. You may well find that she is amenable, inasmuch as the niece and her own family may not have strong religious convictions, so she may be happy to “live and let live” (so to speak, if you excuse the macabre irony).

At the end of the day, a woman (or man) who lived her/his life so distant from Jewish practice and observance does not have a compelling claim on the “right” to a Jewish burial, so if she is resistant to the idea, you do not need to push it.

In any case you are doing a great mitzvah by visiting her. If she is responsive to your encouragement vis a vis a Jewish burial, so much the better.

I hope this has been helpful,

Rabbi Simon