Three Funeral Speeches and a Eucharist: My Experience Actively Participating in Religious Ritual for the Deceased

View from Cemetery Where My Grandfather is Buried

by Kelly Ann

I have spoken at three funerals.

The first time was in 2002 for someone I didn’t know.  Fresh off my mission, I gave the plan of salvation speech for an inactive member of my homeward who wanted a Mormon funeral.  Why?  Because I happened to run into my Bishop, who worked at the same company as I, shortly after he received the call.  The Bishop conducted the service in the funeral home, with the ward organist volunteering her time as well.  After a brief eulogy of the deceased by a visiting brother from Utah who was notably bothered by his brother’s lack of faith, I shared scriptures from the Book of Mormon about the resurrection, bore my testimony of the after-life, and tried not to marvel in the oddness of it all.

The second time I spoke at a funeral was in 2005 for my grandfather who was really like a father to me.  In a Unitarian service, in which a handful of people spoke about various phases of my grandfather’s life (including co-workers, friends, as well as a nurse who cared for him), I represented my family by sharing what he meant to me and how I believed he was at peace even though he trash-talked all religions – as it was more of a compromise to hold the service in the local Unitarian church as he enjoyed attending community events there.  I don’t remember exactly what I said but remember how good it felt to participate in the service.  I also still remember my sister’s rendition of Abide With Me and the spirit it brought and the way the event really brought closure to my family and friends of my grandfather.  My grandmother, a practicing Catholic, was denied a funeral Mass specifically for my grandfather but I attended a Mass with her where they prayed for him as well as for others.  I really admired how the Priest recognized the commonalities in the religious diversity that existed in my family in some of his comments.   Both services were the first realizations of how much I could feel the spirit in other churches.

The third time I spoke at a funeral was last month.  Known as the religious one in my family, my step-mom, an atheist, asked me to help her plan a Catholic mass for her mother, an extended grandmother so to speak.  With the advice of friends and help from the parish, we combed the internet for appropriate scriptures and selection of musical numbers.  I learned about the Liturgy of the Word, the traditional reading of an Old Testament passage, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage as well as the Prayers of the Faithful.  Trying to represent my step-mom’s mother, we selected passages (Lamentations 3:17-26, Second Corinthians 5:1, 6-10, John 12:23-28).  Having struggled with depression her entire life, we hoped to portray how she found peace despite her pain through her faith as that was why in the end the family felt it important to offer her a Catholic Mass.  Given my step-mom was un-comfortable reading a scripture in public, her cousin (representing the extended family) read the first passage and I (representing more of the immediate family) read the second passage while the Priest read the Gospel passage and Prayers of the Faithful.  I was honored to participate in the service and truly understand and embrace the commonalities of my faith and reveling in the spirit present.  And even just enjoying the ritual of it all, particularly the responsorials and all the standing and sitting.

However, an unexpected opportunity presented itself at the service.  We did not realize that family members are also encouraged to participate in the Preparations of the Gifts in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Being asked minutes before the start of the Mass, I did not have time to think about the honor of carrying the bread and wine forward for Communion.  As my brother and I walked to the front of the chapel with the bread and wine in hand, I welled with emotion to offer this sacrifice to the Priest.  And yet, the irony struck me that I would never have had such an opportunity to do this in my own church (on so many different levels).

What is your experience actively participating in religious ritual for the deceased?  How have various traditions brought you peace?  Do you crave the traditions of others for your family, friends, or for yourself?

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22 Responses

  1. Eleanor J. says:

    When my mother-in-law died, my husband insisted that it be held at the funeral home as he wanted the control over the services and not given to the Bishop – who insisted that it was still under the auspices of the church and he piously “presided” which was very annoying to us. Anyway we managed to have our own style of saying goodbye without having done it the “normal” way. And it was lovely and appreciated by all and I’m sure by my mother-in-law. The best part of the funeral was when my husband had a popular song and her favorite song, played – that would never have been allowed to be played in the chapel! I don’t see why we have to have funerals done the “church’s” way, or even “presided” by church leaders, particularly when the deceased didn’t much like some of the church leaders or people. I think funerals are a private matter and the outcome should be controlled by family members of the deceased and not by church leaders. My sisters mother-in-law along with female friends of a deceased woman, planned and conducted the funeral without involving any of the male church leaders of her ward, and apparently it was inspiring. The only male involvement was a good male friend who dedicated the grave. Some of the traditions we have in the church are the “vain traditions of our forefathers” and need to be abolished and given up to the desires of the family to run the funeral services as they see fit. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to plan their own funeral services.

  2. Stella says:

    I used to find LDS funerals really comforting. The loved ones with God. Living forever. So much work to do. Another part of their journey. Now, honestly, I find silence a lot more comforting. I find a moment of silent reflection as life passes on to be the most meaningful to me.

  3. Kelly Ann–Thank you for your thoughtful post. I think it’s a mark of spiritual maturity when we can comfort and inspiration from more fiaths than our own.

    Eleanor–No one has to let a bishop take over a family funeral. The bishop’s offer can be politely declined. We did not involve a bishop at my brother’s graveside service, nor did my cousins involve a bishop at their parents’ services.

    Stella–I also used to find LDS funeral services uplifting with their message of life beyond the grave. Eventually, the message became repeitious. Now, I prefer to hear a tribute to the life of the deceased. And for true reflection on the meaning of life and death, I agree that silence is best.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Your post reminded me of an article I read about a woman who started her own home funeral business. You can see it at http://magazine.wjs.com/hunter/death-becomes-her/ I hope that link comes through alright.

    This woman started helping make-a-wish families put together memorial celebrations. Then she saw that there was a need for women to give a more personal touch, rather than let the male-dominated mortuary industry dictate how people do funerals. I love her! Check out her “green” caskets!

    I loved the idea of doing a simple home funeral. The article mentions that the costs of embalming and burial are often more than $6,000. This woman does home funerals with cremation for about $1,500. I know our LDS culture hasn’t been keen on cremation but it sure is more cost effective! Hey, we’re all about provident living right! I’d rather think that my money went to a lovely grandchild’s college fund than paying for my coffin! I also like the idea of a small celebration at home with close friends and family. It just seems more personal.

    Anybody had experience going the cremation route with an LDS person?

  5. mb says:

    Rebecca,
    I’m old. I’ve been to lots of funerals. In my Northeastern stake, cremations are almost as common as burials in LDS circles. It’s left entirely up to the family. Bishops recognize the financial hardships and respect the family’s wishes. Here it’s not a big deal. Both are equally acceptable. So perhaps thinking is changing along those lines.

  6. x2dora says:

    I’m glad to hear that people are less opposed to cremation. I’ve heard bizarre stories about latter-day saints opposing cremation and even organ donation due to fears about not being able to be resurrected!

  7. Deborah says:

    I think religious ritual can be especially helpful in the face of death — because it can give structure to a time that is disorienting and confusing. Here, pick three scriptures for the service. Here, sit shiva. Here, let the RS make a comfort-food brunch for your extended family. Decisions fall into a known framework, one that you may have experienced many times over for people a little less close — people know what to do, how to help, how to mobilize. In the last 18 months, I’ve sat in a synagogue, a Catholic church, and a stake center to mourn loved ones. Even though two of these deaths brought personal pain, my memories of the services are sweet.

  8. CatherineWO says:

    One of the sweetest experiences I ever had was when I went with my daughter and my sister and her daughter to dress my mother’s body after she died. Though I have my own ambiguous feelings about the temple, I knew it was something that was very important to my mother, so doing that for her was a small repayment for all she had done for me. We found a beautiful white blouse from Talbots hanging in her closet with the tag still on (maybe she had it in mind for her burial?). It had a cut-work lace collar that was sooo my mother, and Talbots was her favorite store. We also brought her makeup with us to the funeral home and put it on the way she had for so many years, so she really looked like herself.
    Both of my parents wanted LDS funerals, so that’s what we did and no one questioned it. (It is Church policy that when a funeral is held in an LDS building that it is under the direction of the bishop and is considered an LDS church worship service. However, some bishops are more flexible than others.)When my father-in-law died, he had also requested an LDS funeral, but most of the family was not happy about it and his bishop was not very flexible. After that very awful experience, I came home and wrote instructions for my own funeral and burial and told my husband and children where to find the file. It seemed like a selfish thing to do, because I think the funeral is for the sake of those left living, but I couldn’t bear the thought of people arguing over my grave.

  9. Caroline says:

    Thank you, Kelly Ann, for sharing this. I love these kinds of posts, the ones that find God and the Spirit in unexpected places.

    Your section about offering the eucharist particularly resonated with me. I do crave those traditions or rituals of other faiths that are gender inclusive. Whenever I go to the UCC I’m happy and sad to see little girls and little boys as acolytes in their white robes. Those same mixed emotions fill me as I see the female pastor bless the bread and break it. How I wish I might someday see the same in my own tradition…

  10. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you everybody for your responses and sharing your experiences.

    Deborah, I see why people often want a religious rite or a structured program to bring peace. I know people who only go to church for events like blessings, weddings, and funerals (and maybe an occasional Christmas or Easter service if they are Christian). Although I found the first Mormon funeral I described odd, I believe it did bring comfort to those present to have the form of tradition we could offer. Although I too think that a luncheon is one of the best forms of service. Food brings physical comfort as well as people together in a more casual atmosphere.

    However, I like the truly personalized examples (although structured in their own way). As mentioned by several people, I think the funeral home can really be a great place to do whatever what one is comfortable with. Rebecca, thanks for highlighting the home funeral business which adds an unique female personalized touch. I like the idea of celebrating with family but I also like the idea of a space big enough to bring everyone together. Sometimes I wonder who would come to my funeral and what they would think of the other guests ;-p

    Eleanor J. and Course Correction, I also feel that presiding is not always necessary. It encourages me to hear stories of those who planned their own funeral. I think some people might think presiding is a necessary part even though I find it interesting that Mormonism doesn’t have a critical death ordinance. Although offered by the Priesthood, I find the fact that dedication of graves is optional interesting. I do not really understand the purpose. Any thoughts?

    CatherineWO, I am sorry to hear that you had such an over-bearing Bishop. You have made me think of the importance of outlining my own service as part of my will.

  11. Kelly Ann says:

    Stella, having attended Quaker services, I have learned the importance of silence in worship (although never a Quaker funeral – which I am curious if anyone here has experience with). Silence in death has been important for me. For example, I have had multiple calming experiences while walking around my grandfather’s cemetery on a quiet day. As Course Correction indicates, I like thinking about the meaning of life and death but I find the sermon talks overkill and rather prefer the focus on the life of the deceased and the hope that comes from believing.

    Stella, I also think the LDS doctrine of eternal families brings a lot to a funeral (even if certain elements can be overwhelming or distorted). It gives hope, particularly to those who have lost a child. I am reminded of a young adult my age from my homeward who passed away a few years ago. The realization of the number of families present from the ward who had also lost a child was overwhelming. Seeing them rally around this family and share their experience was heartwarming. In my post, I described funerals in which I have been part of the program, but I should not discount the importance of the community in merely going to a funeral and supporting friends or extended family.

  12. Kelly Ann says:

    As for the doctrinal questions regarding cremation, the church’s position is that it is not encouraged but not prohibited (a personal decision as with most controversial issues). MB, I am glad to hear more people are doing it as I have only known of a few. X2Dora, As a scientist, I have always been in favor of organ donation which also is gaining more favor in LDS circles. However, I have had people become quite offended when they have seen my sticker on my driver’s license. I once worried about how my body would be re-built in the resurrection until I started thinking about how it would all decompose anyway. I haven’t thought about whether or not I prefer burial or cremation for myself. All I know is that I don’t want to end up as a cadaver in an anatomy lab or on a body farm (although I do admire those who have courage to donate to science).

    I do wonder (serious question) if a member can be cremated in their temple clothes? I recognize the ritual in putting them on a member but I am not sure why some people think it is necessary. I have found my imagination of decayed bodies bursting their graves in tattered clothes at the resurrection a little disturbing.

  13. Kelly Ann says:

    And finally, Course Correction, it definitely is a mark of my faith to draw faith from others. Caroline, I agree that experiencing God and the Spirit in other traditions with less gender boundaries has been amazing and disheartening all at the same time. Since participating in the Eucharist, I have had more pronounced thoughts about things I wish I could do in the Mormon faith that only men can do and will post about that at another time.

  14. Valory says:

    Kelly Ann, I was browsing the blogs tonight and just happened to find this site and your story. You and I met for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and now I am reading your thoughtful post, quite by chance (or synchronicity?) Your experience is meaningful to me for a couple of reasons; first, for being raised LDS, I have had a lot of experience with the Catholic church. Also, having gone through the terminal illness and death of my first husband, I have been able to reflect on those traditions that brought us peace at that difficult time. My husband was Catholic, but he had a lot of conflicted feelings about his own faith, as well as the LDS church. On the one and only occasion that he spoke to me about the inevitable, I was able to draw from my background and core beliefs something that was reassuring and comforting to both of us. He was at home, in his own bed, the night he died. He had lost consciousness, and as he struggled to leave this life, my home teachers came to give him a blessing. This was probably more for me than for him, but I do believe that on some level he was able to make that transition more easily as a result of the blessing. The LDS funeral was a time of healing for all of us, his family included, because of the tradition we have of telling about the deceased person’s life, including things that were funny or special about that individual. His family was pleased with the lovely meal that the Relief Society provided. It was an outpouring of love and service that is pretty typical in our LDS culture, and they appreciated it. A funeral mass and burial were held in his home state of Maine, which was an important rite and closure for his family. In the end, I think we did the best we could, merging two religious traditions while being sensitive to everyone in the process.

  15. Purple Turtle says:

    I’m sorry if this is long-winded…my mom died recently. It was completely unexpected, and so sudden that nobody was able to say goodbye to her. My siblings and I had not been close to her for a long time, but had been working on rebuilding our relationship in the past year. (Years and years of very sad and dangerous choices and situations).

    She was once a member of the church, but had been a member of a non-denominational Christian church for years. The rest of my family is LDS. It was definitely against her wishes to hold a service at a Mormon chapel, so we thought that a funeral home would be a neutral place where friends and family of different faiths could celebrate her life. We had her former pastor speak and sing, family members and a close friend give personal thoughts, and played a slideshow of our favorite pictures of her along with her favorite song.

    It was helpful and a peaceful spot during a horrible time. I am glad that the service was intimate and about her…it hasn’t always been the case, but some of the LDS services I have attended for other family members felt impersonal, like they were more about an idea than about this real person who had died.

    We ended up choosing to have her cremated. It was what she had said that she wanted, and circumstances were such that none of the children would have been able to attend the burial that was initially planned in another state. Doing this has allowed us more time to plan a memorial service, at a time when we are thinking clearly and not as traumatized by the initial shock of her death.

    My Grandparents, who are very traditional, have been really troubled by the cremation. I am sorry to have caused them pain. But when I saw my mom’s body at the viewing, I realized that it was just that…her body. She was somewhere else. God is powerful, and I don’t believe that whether she was cremated or embalmed and buried affects her now, and I don’t think it will affect what will happens in the next life.

  16. Kelly Ann says:

    Valory, welcome to the Exponent. I am glad that you found the site. Thank you for sharing your experience. As with everyone so far, I am sorry for your loss. I like that you found a way to bridge both your husband’s and your faith with the blessing, the LDS funeral, the Catholic mass, and the burial. I guess the best closure comes in reflecting all elements of one life and that death is never just about one person, it also affects all those who know, knew, and will know the deceased.

    Purple Turtle, thank you as well for describing your experience. What a wonderful way to celebrate the multiple aspects of your mother’s life. I hope you continue to find peace.

    Your comment makes me realize that both my grandfather’s funeral as well as the mass for my step-mother’s mother were enough after the fact to put real thought into them as well which probably made most of the difference. They were both buried but your thought regarding how cremation might affect others gives me a lot to think about.

    I know my mother would be bothered if I was cremated. I have slowly tried to get her use to the idea that I would want my organs donated as well. As hesitant as she has been to accept that, citing temple concerns, even asking a Bishop the churches position, I am pretty sure she would freak out if I told her I wanted to be cremated. That is something to consider … although I hope to live another 75 years at least, so I might not have to worry about it.

  17. mb says:

    Kelly Ann,

    “decayed bodies bursting their graves in tattered clothes at the resurrection”? Good heavens. What an awful notion. Makes me think of the butcher’s wife in “Fiddler on the Roof”.

    I have always figured that the molecules that make up my physical body have been, in the last few eons, part of the make up of so many other people, animals and things that will need resurrection or renewal, that God will have to create new resurrected bodies from scratch. I don’t expect that at the resurrection my spirit will be reunited with the same set of molecules at all, let alone that I might need to claim the scraps left in my coffin as my personal property.

    Restored to its “perfect frame” and “proper form”, yes. To the exact same body I had left behind, no.

    And to answer your question about cremation, my experience is that the body is usually cremated in the clothes in which it would be dressed while in the casket. That may include temple clothing.

  18. Kelly Ann says:

    MB, I will be the first to agree that I have an over-active imagination. And maybe have watched too many zombie movies …

    I like how you concisely sum up your view on cremation. Another image that has infiltrated my mind over the years is that of a eternal genetic library (dna or stem cells). I figure if we are going to be restored to our perfect and proper frame, God has ways to do it. But I shared the first bursting grave image because that at times has entered my mind when discussing the resurrection. Honestly, I don’t worry about it too much. I figure if I am resurrected, I don’t think I am going to sit there and analyze how it was done. I’d probably be more worried about the final judgement at that point … (I hope my dry humor in this is evident).

    And thank you for answering the temple clothing question, I find that really interesting.

    I read a book (Here if you Need Me by Kate Braestrup) that described the author’s path to become a game warden chaplain and her multiple personal and ministerial experiences with death. She included how she prepared her husband’s body for cremation. It was the same as she would have for burial. Only the ending was different. It really made me think about the way we interact with the body left behind as has a few comments made in this thread here have. I also liked how the book tackled a number of life/death issues as well as gave me a perspective on being a female minister – something that as indicated I have wished I could become at times.

    Here’s a link to a review for those interested: http://news.bookweb.org/features/5279.html

  19. Naismith says:

    The general handbook of instruction specifies that the body should be dressed in temple clothing prior to cremation. Of course it is the custom and even the law in some places(crowded countries of southeast asia, for example, can’t waste land mass on cemeteries).

    I have asked to be cremated, and not to have a funeral. One of my adult children announced that they “neither like nor love me” and I didn’t want to put them in an awkward spot of faking grief. Later that person changed their mind, but I never bothered to change the letter with my will. Basically, they can do whatever they want–any funeral is for them, anyway.

    Also, I don’t know if my husband will be buried with me or not. He doesn’t like my idea of where to be buried. I figured I followed him around for his career during life, so I deserve to be where I want in death.

  20. Kelly Ann says:

    Naismith, I guess death is the last chance we have to get our way so to speak (I know many a will would attest to this fact)… I find your comment regarding that you don’t need to be buried next to your husband interesting. It really is such a complicated issue.

    Course Correction, thanks for sharing the link to your article. I enjoyed reading your full experience.

    I’d be one who would want to sit in on my funeral so to speak. Mayhem would probably ensue, but that would be the fun of it.

    Thanks everybody again for sharing your experiences.

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