Dear Rabbi Kula,
My grandfather, to whom I have always been very close, has put me in an impossible situation.
He was born Jewish but was never at all religious. His wife, my grandmother, is a devout Catholic. They raised their children as Catholics.
Now, totally out of the blue, he has confided in me that he wants to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. He insists that I not tell the rest of the family about his request until he passes away, and then he wants me to make sure that he receives a Jewish burial.
Needless to say, this would cause tremendous pain for my family and would come as a complete shock. It would be heartbreaking for my grandfather to be buried apart from my grandmother. I’m also certain that my uncle — who is a very religious Catholic— would be devastated.
It’s clear that my grandfather doesn’t want to make his request known while he’s alive. He chose me to do it because I’m close to him and because I’m not religious.
I don’t want to disappoint my grandfather. But I also don’t want to cause upheaval in my family. I’m reluctant to put myself in the middle of what is certain to be a familial nightmare. What should I do?
Rabbi Irwin Kula replies:
What a profound opportunity you have been given to help your grandfather recover a part of who he is and for your family to reach deeper levels of love and intimacy. While you are understandably nervous about what to do with your grandfather’s request, your nervousness is actually a sacred invitation to engage life more fully than any of us do on a daily basis. If I may use a metaphor, this is a burning bush experience in which you get to discover some new truths about your life and your family — so the anxiety is holy (which means life affirming) or what I call sacred messiness. You are being called by your grandfather to grow and develop and to help him do the same. Very often, as we think about the end of our lives, we reconnect to parts of our past that, for a variety of often very good reasons, we have rejected, repressed or just ignored. It is a way of getting our inner house in order and creating continuity as we contemplate the unknown future that lies beyond this life. The truth about ourselves is incredibly powerful, and the truth about your grandfather’s Jewishness is now bubbling over. The goal here is for everyone touched by this — your grandfather, grandmother and the rest of the immediate family — to come closer to each other. Your grandfather revealing his wishes to you is a sort of testing the waters, not only regarding how you will react to him but as his first “public” embracing of this desire for himself. Obviously, your grandfather trusts you, and you and he share a special bond. It is to your credit that he has reached out to you. But your job is not to ensure where he is buried or to convey his wishes to the rest of the family. It is his responsibility to convey his wishes and his wife and children’s responsibility to carry them out. Now here is the key thing for you: His asking you not to tell anyone until after he dies is a way of protecting himself from being vulnerable, but unless he finds a way to be vulnerable and trust the love he has shared with your grandmother and the rest of his family, where he is buried is completely irrelevant. His request to you, though couched in the language of where he wants to be buried, is not about what to do when he is gone but about what to do about who he is right now. He is not asking you to lie. He is asking you to help him understand more clearly why he wants a Jewish burial and how to have this conversation with his family. You should consider taking the time to sit down with your grandfather and telling him how important it is to you that he has confided in you, that you know he would not want you to lie and that you won’t, and that he should be honest with your grandmother and his children and trust his relationships. You can help him through this process by exploring his Jewishness with him and helping him become more comfortable articulating what he is feeling. You can help him realize that where he is buried is only as important as how he has lived and the desire to be buried as a Jew is really about wanting this part of him known while he is still alive. (By the way, you should know and can tell your grandfather that he can have a Jewish funeral and still be buried next to his wife. There are non-Jewish cemeteries in which people from different backgrounds are buried, and there are now Jewish cemeteries — because intermarriage has become far more common than when your grandparents married — that do the same.) These conversations will not only draw you more closely to each other but will prepare your grandfather to reveal this important part of who he is to the people he loves most When he does so, there may well be tears and discomfort and even some upheaval. But trust yourself and your family that embracing the messiness will open everyone’s hearts and minds to greater self-awareness and love. Don’t be afraid. Remember, it is not that we need to understand someone in order to love them; rather, we love them so that we can better understand them, and the difficult stuff is a necessary path to deeper intimacy and love.
Rabbi Irwin Kula is president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is the author, most recently, of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (Hyperion, 2006) and was featured in the public television special “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings,” which was based on his book.