Crosses and Kaddish: How a Jewish Convert Mourns a Catholic Grandmother

Athena DeRasmo

Kaddish  I was not baptized or raised Catholic; but my precious grandmother Marie surely was – old school Portuguese, Roman Catholic. However, when I was growing up, I did not see much evidence of her practicing her religion. It was the 60s & 70s. Time Magazine asked, “Is God Dead?” People were putting aside traditional religion and embracing other forms of spirituality. Grandma opted for a gentler observance – not orthodox, not born-again, nothing “exotic” — a kind of Christian light.

Fast forward to 2019, and my tiny grandmother voices a preference for a Catholic Mass funeral. Recently, we had been to the Catholic funeral for one of her sorority sisters, and it seemed that all the fondness for her closeted faith found its way back to her 95-year-old heart and mind. It wasn’t too many months later that her active dying began. In the end, she crossed herself a lot, and prayed to Jesus. A friend helped her to pray the rosary, and a priest was called for last rites. This was about her needs, her desires, her transition – and there was no place for any of my Jewish sensibilities or proclivities, not here, not now.

So now that she is gone, how do I, an observant Jew, mourn her and still minister to the plethora of particulars that comprise a goyish memorial service; a Catholic one no less! The Jewish traditions seem very focused on the needs of the living family, whereas the Catholic traditions are very focused on the needs of the deceased – and I am feeling the “pull.”

So, I will say Kaddish, and schedule the cremation, I will light the memorial candle, and book the church, I will wear a black tear ribbon, and hire caterers, I will suspend all plans for merry making for 30 days and formulate the memorial program and reception. I will light Hanukkah Candles, and write and run an obituary. There will be no sitting Shiva for me, but there will be flowers, many flowers for her.

Whatever the window-dressing of tradition, any tradition – in the end I will never speak to or see my grandmother again, and I will miss her for the rest of my days. My loss is neither Jewish nor Gentile – it is very human.

Yahrzeit Candle