Temple Issue Extras: Dressing Grandma for the Temple

Posted by on August 29, 2013 in worship | 7 comments

Los Angeles Temple by Ashmae HoilandWe had so many lovely submissions for our Summer 2013 Temple issue and couldn’t pack them all into 44 pages. (Order yours by Monday, September 2nd to ensure that you don’t miss this touching issue.) Special thanks to Ashmae Hoiland who has allowed us to use some watercolors of temples in this series on the blog (and in the magazine). More of Ashmae’s work can be found at her website, http://www.ashmae.com/.

Grandma spilled the beans when she walked me through the temple ceremony.  Scene by scene, she detailed what would occur during my upcoming endowment, omitting only explicitly secret portions.  The imagery and specific eccentricities of the rituals were all new to me.  As I earnestly listened to her I was fascinated with how different the temple was from any other church experience.  Grandma’s first time through the temple had been disastrous.  She was ill-prepared and blindsided by its novelty.  She compartmentalized her confusion, compliantly wore her garments, and continued to attend church.  It took 20 years, and her son going on a mission, before she would go back to the temple for a second try.   My grandma’s genuine concern and preparation help altered the way I experienced the temple. Thanks to grandma, I felt prepared.

A few years later my grandma was dying from a hostile cancer. Even before her weeks were numbered her bishop and stake president had contacted my father to ensure her soon- to- be ‘remains’ be dressed for disposal in ceremonial temple clothing. It wasn’t optional- she was endowed so it was expected.  A church pamphlet detailing the method would come in the mail.

The church’s insistence felt imposing and irreverent.  I meant no disrespect to my grandma, but I openly questioned whether the custom was really necessary.  The only thing Grandma had mentioned in her funeral plans was that she wanted to be cremated (despite tradition, she found it more appealing and practical.) I wasn’t convinced that being burned in her temple clothes was important to either God or Grandma.  I didn’t see the point in a ‘non-saving’ temple practice. It seemed like an antiquated, quirky cultural tradition- one that should be optional

Also, the prospect of the duty itself made me feel nervous.  Dead bodies are awkward, ridgid, unnaturally cold, and handling them seemed intrusive. The thought of putting on a person’s underwear when they weren’t looking felt sneaky. Personally, I didn’t need the closure – I had been in the room for her last breath, said my ‘I love you’ s, and already used up my soul-satisfying goodbye. I wanted her to leave on that perfect note but familial duty was forcing me to relent and play along.

At the mortuary we were greeted by a not too happy, but not too somber, funeral director. She led us to a room where my grandma was waiting for us naked under a white blanket, wig pinned on and mouth glued shut.  The director mentioned she was familiar with LDS temple burial customs and would be standing by in case we needed help. My dad, who would not be participating because he was male, said a prayer. He left my sister, mother, and I alone with Grandma. I tried hard to find and embrace the Holy Ghost, to be spiritual.

After a few failed attempts dressing the body ourselves, and unanimously agreeing to leave grandma bra-less, we changed our minds and invited the director to assist. She offered useful tricks for shimmying on clothes and rolling bodies over without rolling them off the table. I felt a tad embarrassed an ‘outsider’ was seeing grandma this way, in her white and green ceremonial clothing.  But the funeral director didn’t gawk or show any amusement while we, as prescribed, adorned the body.

I wanted to be bombarded by Grandma’s supernatural presence but I honestly don’t know if she was even there to be found.  Nothing exceptional transpired while she was dressed.  In the end it wasn’t too spiritual, it wasn’t overly emotional, it was a service that I did for my living family of believers.  I saw the task not so much as a way to prepare Grandma to meet God but as a vehicle to prepare us, her family, for life without her

The ordeal was less macabre and creepy, and more meaningful, than I had anticipated.  It was a useful method to express grieving and a chance to bond with my sister and mother.   It was also a way to capture the rare opportunity, as a Mormon woman, to perform a ritual for another sister. I’ve come to view dressing our dead as a tangible manifestation of our hope that God, in his kindness, will one day allow us to see our loved ones again.

Initially I was concerned that when I dressed my grandma I would be doing something that didn’t need to be done. For Mormons, best case scenario, rites of the temple are essential, soul-saving procedures.  At the very least, they are still rituals of reflection we have laced with significance. I now think that even if it was superfluous- even if it turns out nothing we do regarding the temple is a ticket to heaven- if temple practices are meaningful to us we should allow them a place in our lives. The temple is a part of our tradition. It is a place where generations have gone to connect with themselves, with others, with Deity.  It is a place to retreat and ask weighty questions. It is where many of us were married.  It is a tool that I use for meditation and to be reminded of God’s love.  It is a place I go to remember the deceased.

Danielle lives in the Washington D.C. area.  She’s an unpolished fiddler, a personal trainer, a mediocre gardener, a super kid-snuggler, and an addicted NPR listener.

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7 Comments

  1. Is it bad that I haven’t been crazy about the idea of getting buried in my temple clothes because I don’t like my temple dress? It’s polyester and itchy. Still, since I only wear it every couple months, I just make do. I just don’t want to go to the Resurrection in it :)

    On a more serious note, I love this vignette…I’ve never been invited to dress a body, and I appreciate the description and insights of your piece, Danielle, on this uniquely Mormon ritual.

    • The Church handbook mentions the option to have people buried (or cremated) with their temple bag simply alongside them, without actually wearing the temple clothes.I think that would be more my style. I too certainly hope I’m not stuck in my temple dress for the resurrection- it makes me feel like I’m in my pajamas. :)

  2. This was excellent.

    By time she was thirty-two, my younger sister had been an RS president twice. She’s done this deal more than a few times. I remember her telling me it was overwhelming and awkward, but this gave me a vision of what it felt and looked like, and it made me feel overwhelmed for her.

    Our mother has made us promise we will not tie her veil when it’s her turn. She’s claustrophobic, and she has said she’ll be “mad as hell” if she has to wait for eternity with that thing around her neck.

    Rituals are for the living, aren’t they? You’ve reminded me of this, and I actually really needed the reminder.

  3. I have never liked this tradition. I think it is weird and confusing for nonmembers and unendowed members to see the body dressed in such a strange costume. I have told my husband that I do not want to be buried in temple clothes, but perhaps I should reconsider if my daughter might find the dressing ritual comforting. She would be the one called upon to do it, not my husband. Maybe I will talk to her about it when we are both a lot older.

    • I’d also like to see this weird tradition die off, or at least become completely optional. But you know how Mormons are- when traditions go on for long enough they then become near commandments.

  4. I assisted with dressing my mother in law and more recently my own mother. Although emotionally difficult I found it to be strangely comforting to be able to do this last act of service. Both were dressed in temple clothing. Reading and talking to others about this tradition I’m starting to be ambivalent about the need to do so. Guess it’s important to make our wishes known!

    • “Strangely comforting” is a great way to describe it!

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