Ashes to Ashes
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?