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Death Need Not Separate Mixed-Faith Couples

01/12/2015 13:01 GMT | Updated 28/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The story of Iris Freud holds lessons for many mixed-faith couples. What was sad was not that she died in mid-October, aged 92 but that she then lay in a mortuary for several weeks whilst a tug of love was fought over her body.

The problem was that Iris was Christian and her late husband, Gideon, who passed away a few years ago, was Jewish. They had two children, a boy and a girl, now both in their 60s. The daughter wanted a Church of England service for Iris, with traditional hymns. However, the son wanted a Jewish funeral for Iris, similar to that of his father.

When the son and daughter could not agree, they went to court - a case the papers labelled as 'a holy war'. Eventually a compromise emerged, with the funeral being in two parts - first a Jewish-style ceremony, after which there would be a pause, those that wished to leave could do so, and then followed the hymns and Christian elements.

Simple really. But it highlights one of the less obvious aspects of mixed-faith marriages - which most people think of as being about the wedding day and whether you can walk down the aisle, stand under a huppah (Jewish wedding canopy) or have to settle for a Registry Office ceremony

Alternatively, they assume the main issue is about which faith to bring up the children in - his or hers? Or about what happens if it is a baby boy and do you circumcise him or baptise him or neither or both?

But it also effects the end of life too. Moreover, this aspect is set to become much more of a talking point as the great bulge in mixed-faith marriages occurred in the 1950s and those couples are now passing away, raising some urgent questions:

In which cemetery should they be buried - Christian, Jewish or a neutral Council-owned one? That is complicated by the fact that many Jews are not comfortable with a Christian cemetery full of crosses, while many Jewish cemeteries have bye-laws stating that they are only for members of the Jewish faith.

This has often meant that husband and wife were buried in separate places, while their children had to visit Mum and Dad in different cemeteries.

That is also the reason why a high percentage of mixed-faith couples opt for cremation - even though personally they might prefer burials - so as to avoid the territorial problem, while their ashes are scattered under the same non-denominational rose-bush.

But who should officiate at the service: the minister of the deceased, who can give the correct last rites? Or the minister of the partner that survived, who can give better pastoral care? This can lead to quirky situations: I have several times done a funeral where there were 40 people present but only two Jews - myself and the corpse - and so I tailored a Jewish service for a completely non-Jewish congregation.

Recently there has been a change in attitude and some synagogues - including my one in Maidenhead - have decided: if a couple have been living together for several decades, why should we split them in death? We therefore do mixed-faith funerals.

It means that when couples get married, they should not only discuss the wedding day, honeymoon and joint bank accounts, but also talk through all the cycle of life decisions they will one day have to make, so that both partners know what the other wants. They should also communicate it to their wider family, so that there are no squabbles and visits to the High Court.

The marriage service may say 'till death us do part' - but even then they can still lie side by side and not several miles apart.