Ashes to Ashes

Posted by on October 18, 2013 in death, Gender roles, grief, worship | 13 comments

800px-Jefferson_Barracks_National_Cemetery

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, image by Robert Lawton

I recently attended and participated in my grandmother’s funeral.  She was not LDS or an active member of any church.  As a veteran, she was entitled to military honors and burial in a National Cemetery.  She passed away a year ago and was cremated, and the family planned a reunion around the memorial service.

 

My family converged on Saint Louis for a weekend to celebrate her life and honor her.  The morning of the funeral we sat together in the hotel lobby and made up a program on a piece of hotel stationary.  My aunt is a Presbyterian minister whose ministry is to visit shut-ins and ill people and she was more than happy to conduct our little service.

 

We met at Jefferson Barracks and went out to a shelter on the grounds where two Naval officers presented my mom with a flag and three veteran volunteers fired off the shots.  It was a beautiful and solemn moment.  Then we congregated around the grave and had one of the most lovely, informal and pleasant funerals I have ever attended.

My aunt welcomed us, and my mother provided a short life history.  She encouraged anyone who wanted to share a memory to do so, and a resident of her senior home who had come volunteered that she was a good bridge player.  My sister-in-law offered an opening prayer, then I read from Ecclesiastes and my cousin read a Psalm.  My uncle, who is a non-believer, felt uncomfortable participating and instead took photographs of the service. Being a carpenter, he had also made a cherry box to hold the ashes. The LDS family members sang, “Families can be together forever” because my nephew loves that song.  Technically speaking, of course, few of the people present were sealed to one another.  My brother and his wife and children are sealed, and I am sealed to my husband who was absent.  My father is not a member and my parents are divorced. The rest of the family not being LDS either of course we don’t really fit the usual definition of “together forever.”  Yet in that moment I felt very strongly that we were a family, and we would be together forever and that it didn’t matter a whit that half the people present don’t even really know about the temple.

 

My aunt spoke of the glory of the Resurrection and led us in the Lord’s Prayer, encouraging everyone present to use whatever variation of words they had in their own service. I don’t remember everything she said, so what follows is an approximation.

Father, we thank you for your servant Shirley, whose baptism is now complete in death.  We praise you for the gift of her life, for all that was good and kind and faithful.  She lived a life of service and love.  We thank you that for her death is past and pain ended, and that she has now entered the joy you have prepared, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  We commend her to you now.

Then she offered the prayer of committal, as the waiting cemetery workers interred the box that my uncle had made for my Grammy’s ashes.

My brother offered a closing prayer, and then my aunt, who is justifiably famous for her shortbread, offered some to each of the mourners and we chatted in the park like atmosphere.  I gather that my brother quietly dedicated the grave in the LDS tradition, but it was not part of the main group.

 

I write all this because I loved having every part of the service be conducted by family members.  I love that every person participated in the way that they felt comfortable, and that two different faith traditions met seamlessly and beautifully.   I love that every part of it was about remembering and loving my grandma, and we did exactly what we wanted and needed for closure and peace.  I loved seeing my aunt minister to us, reminding us of the resurrection and of the joy and peace my grandma now feels.  I loved that she knew exactly what to do and took our disparate ideas of what we wanted and shaped them easily and with very little notice into a memorial service.

In an LDS funeral a woman could never conduct or preside, even if the family felt she was the proper person to do so.  Whether by policy or tradition, it seems LDS funerals always have at least half the time spent on a talk about the Plan of Salvation by the local Bishop, regardless of whether that meets the needs or desires of the deceased or their family, or whether the Bishop even knew the deceased well.  LDS tradition discourages cremation for reasons that are obscure to me.

After attending the funeral I realized that if I had my wish, the last thing I would want would be an LDS funeral. I am only twenty-nine, so I don’t anticipate dying any time soon.  Still, the beauty and peace of that service made me reflect on what I would want.  I definitely want to be cremated. I do not want a canned talk about the Plan of Salvation designed as a missionary tool for my non-member friends and family.  I want everyone who loves me to be able to participate in the ways that are meaningful to them, untrammeled by tradition or prescribed gender roles.  I want the women in my life to have the same opportunities as the men to express grief, and to offer consolation.  I suppose that means I want a funeral outside the church building, run by my family however they think it best.  It means more work in some ways, but it also means freedom to express and share grief in ways that to me feel more authentic.

How do you feel about LDS funerals? What aspects are meaningful for you? What parts of the tradition would you change? What elements from other faiths have you found to be powerful?

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13 Comments

  1. I have often considered what I would do if my husband or children passed away. I have been to several funerals that were just atrocious because of the “missionary” message, and in one case, the absolute chastisement of a poor family mourning the loss of a father and his young son by a member of a stake presidency. Funerals are not a saving ordinance that require the presiding presence or authority of a priesthood leader. They enforce that structure when you want to hold your funeral in the church building as a church service. I have told my husband I would prefer to just go out to the cemetery for a simple, outdoor service. I think a funeral should be ultimately up to the family–it’s time we let go of the idea that the patriarch has to preside over this most sacred time of grief and passage from one existence to the next.

    • *patriarchy*
      I should learn to proof read before I post…

  2. It’s policy in the handbook that funerals are supposed to be a missionary opportunity that focuses on the gospel rather than the person: “When a bishop conducts a funeral, he or one of his counselors oversees the planning of the service. He considers the wishes of the family, but he ensures that the funeral is simple and dignified, with music and brief addresses and sermons centered on the gospel, including the comfort afforded by the Savior’s Atonement and Resurrection….
    Funerals provide an important opportunity to teach the gospel and testify of the plan of salvation. They also provide an opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased. However, such tributes should not dominate a funeral service. Having large numbers of people share tributes or memories can make a funeral too long and may be inappropriate for a Church service. If family members want an extended time to share such memories, they may consider doing so in a special family gathering, separate from the funeral service.” (Handbook 2, section 18.6)

    I dislike the church way of using funerals as a missionary tool, and how the bishopric presides over the funeral, even in cases where they hardly knew/didn’t know at all the deceased. I’ve made it very clear to my family that I refuse to have a funeral like this, that the only ones “presiding” at my funeral will be immediate family members (and if my mom or one of older sisters are still alive when I go, they’ll be the presiding person), my sisters and brother will be the only pallbearers, and above all, no sermons whatsoever.

    • As I read the first two paragraphs of your comment I initially thought you were expressing YOUR views and I started to get really angry. I suppose that is telling. For the last several weeks I have been doing a lot of reading from Anglican and Presbyterian materials, mostly prayer books and hymnals. I think we are mistaken if we think “missionary opportunity” means “teach a missionary discussion out of Preach My Gospel.” I was very touched by what my aunt said, I felt like her words exactly expressed what I felt and hoped for my Grandma’s spirit. I felt comforted, and peaceful. As a result, I was curious to know more about her beliefs and practices.

      While death can be a time when people seek out religion, it seems a little calculating to deliberately target that. It seems to me that the best way to accomplish a missionary purpose would be to help people see and feel the peace that the Gospel brings not by telling our doctrine but by showing true disinterested love and inviting the Spirit through music and scripture.

  3. We held my MIL funeral at the funeral home. My husband did not want the “missionary funeral” and wanted his own kind of music. She’s Australian so we had the anthem and Waltzing Matilda played – it was lovely.
    I think if he dies before me, I will do the same for the simple reason he is not into the churchy thing much anymore and these kinds of things really annoy him. Funerals are for families not for potential member missionary moments.

    • “Funerals are for families not for potential member missionary moments”

      AMEN

      And I love that you had Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda.

      • It was lovely, and I will do it for my husband as well.

  4. I really don’t understand why LDS funeral services are so rigid and formal, because they definitely don’t meet the needs of many families. I’ve also been to services where the focus is so completely on the Atonement that it feels much more like a regular sacrament meeting than a ritual of mourning or celebration. I guess that’s just it – we’re not having sacrament meeting, we’re meeting to celebrate and mourn. And LDS services as prescribed by the handbook don’t seem to be particularly conducive to that.

  5. This is beautiful, Em. That sounds like the perfect way to celebrate the life of a beloved family member. Thank you for inviting us to participate with you in this way.

    With the whole Ordain Women attention as of late, the dedication of graves is something that has struck me. It just feels more soothing to me to think of a woman dedicating a grave, for potential resurrection. Its one of the tiny things that it seems few people consider that women are forbidden from doing in the church– not unlike the English tradition from a century ago when women and children didn’t attend funerals. It just makes no sense.

  6. Em, your description of the service, and the family participation in it, is beautiful.

    I just attended a leadership meeting at my work, and for one portion, we discussed moral distress in health care. According to one article that we read, “Moral distress has been described as the psychological pain and disequilibrium that results from knowing what action is needed in a situation, but not being able to take an ethically appropriate action due to internal or external obstacles; it involves a preception that personal or professional values or core ethical obligations are being violated (Lang, K. R., 2008).” It sounds like you and your family were able to tailor the funeral to fit the family’s needs, without getting involved in any denominational squabbles.

    Afterwards, the social worker from the Palliative Care team came and spoke with us about the services that she offers families who have a death, often following up with them for as many as 18 months. She specified that it may not even be until the 6 or 12 month anniversary that the family members truly process that the loved one is not going to return. So, the idea of using these emotionally trying times to institute a new way of life seems rather rushed and misplaced.

    • My grandma spent her last two weeks in a hospice care facility, which is where we all gathered to visit a last time. Hospice workers continue to contact my mother regularly to ask how she is doing, even though we live in Oregon and my grandma died in Missouri. I’m sure it is their job to do so, but I am struck by such a practice, how helpful and how good it is. With fall here again I have felt the sorrow more freshly than I did all summer long.

  7. Thank you, Em. That was beautiful.

  8. I really appreciated this post, Em. It sounds like that funeral was perfect and beautiful, and I love the thought of a woman spiritual leader presiding over it.

    I’m going to leave specific instructions to my family about my funeral. I certainly don’t want a bishop-run one.

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