Planning a funeral for a spouse of a different religion

5 min read

Navigating your interfaith partner’s funeral traditions

  • Any final wishes your spouse left are your best guide to honoring them appropriately with minimal family conflict.

  • If you are grappling with religious beliefs or practices, take time to address your feelings before planning the ceremony. 

  • Family members can clarify aspects of the ceremony and what role they expect you to play. 

  • The most important thing is a ceremony that allows everyone to process their grief and pay their respects.

Planning your spouse’s funeral is one of the most difficult challenges you’ll ever face. And when you come from a different religious background, the complexity can become overwhelming. In addition to deciding how to honor your partner’s last wishes and your life together, you may need to accommodate unfamiliar traditions and the opinions of your partner’s family. 

Find their last wishes

It will be enormously helpful to locate any written last wishes, which may be part of the will or in a separate document addressing “disposition of remains,” depending on state law. These instructions will provide guidance to you when planning the ceremony, and may be some protection if surviving family members do not agree with your or your partner’s choices, which can be especially difficult if you were not legally or religiously married.

In most states, a person’s preference whether to be buried or cremated is legally binding, even if the family disagrees with it. In all but a few states, however, last wishes pertaining to funeral rites and rituals—including who is to officiate, where it is to be held, and all other ceremonial aspects—are not legally binding, but they are generally honored in all but the most outrageous, illegal, or financially burdensome cases. 

In the absence of legally binding documentation, most states give a person’s next of kin legal control of their body. If there is a dispute among next of kin, the court will determine whose desires prevail, and will consider a final wishes document as a strong piece of evidence.  

Reach out for help 

Over the course of your relationship, you and your partner most likely found balance in your religious beliefs and made compromises in expressing them. It is possible that despite your differing backgrounds, these issues never really came up in your day-to-day life. Or, at the very least, you agreed to disagree.

But at the end of life, religion can become important once again. Even those who choose a secular life often express a wish to return to the comfort of religious rituals in death.

Before you begin planning, you may need to address your feelings about these issues, especially if you are grappling with the religion’s position on believers, nonbelievers, and the afterlife.

Over the course of your relationship, you and your partner most likely found balance in your religious beliefs and made compromises in expressing them.

It may be helpful to talk to your partner’s family, or friends who shared their religious background and can help with the planning. You might say: “I understand your faith calls for certain things to be done. Is this something you want to do?” You can also ask what you should do and what role they expect you to play in the ceremony. 

You may also want to ask if you can incorporate aspects from your life together, such as a song or a reading. However, if their rituals don’t normally include those things, be prepared that they may say no.  

Clarify expectations 

People attending a religious funeral are expected to be considerate of the family's religious beliefs. This sometimes means paying your respects in a religious context even though doing so may not feel natural, especially if your partner no longer practiced. For example, at a Jewish funeral, males of any religion are often expected to wear a yarmulke. When entering a Buddhist ceremony, it is traditional to approach the altar and bow one’s head in a pose of prayer for a few moments of reflection before taking your seat.

Most religions also prescribe a customary color of mourning clothing. Modesty of dress is often expected as well.

In most religions, prayers or chanting are common at funerals. Attendees are not required to join in but may do so out of respect to the family or as a way of honoring their loved one. 

You are not expected to participate in communion in Catholic and Episcopalian ceremonies, for instance, or other religious sacraments. In many cases, to do so would be considered disrespectful. The best thing you can do is to simply sit or stand with the assembled group and listen in attentive silence.

If conflict arises

In the midst of grief, it’s not uncommon for families and spouses to argue over funeral arrangements, burial plots, or the possession of ashes. If you cannot come to an agreement, strongly consider appealing to a neutral third party or even hiring a professional mediator. Even though you may have the legal right to do so, it’s best not to make unilateral decisions that can cause lasting resentment, or even inspire disruptive behavior during the ceremony. And you certainly don’t want things to boil over into a legal dispute, which will likely be costly, time-consuming, and emotionally draining.

If you were not legally married, or if there were legal documents giving the family control over your spouse’s funeral, you may be forced to stand by while the family does what they think is right. If this happens, you might contemplate skipping the funeral ceremony. Remember, though, that the funeral is an important step in grieving. The elements of the ceremony help attendees to process their grief, honor their loved one’s memory, and search for deeper meaning in the loss.

If you decide not to attend—or if, in extreme cases, you are barred from attending—you may wish to hold your own separate memorial service. You do not need the coffin or urn present to memorialize the person you loved. Design the ceremony however you feel is most appropriate to your partner and the life you shared together, and invite those who knew and loved you as a couple.

In most cases, though, the notion of honoring a loved one’s wishes is almost universal among religions. If you were the one asked by your partner to carry them out, you’re honor-bound to live up to that trust. If someone else in your partner’s life chooses to go against their stated requests, there may not be much you can do, except to remind them that disrespecting the wishes of the dead only hurts those who are left behind.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.