Peculiar Funerals for Peculiar People

Aimee lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband and three children and is the co-editor of the Exponent II Magazine.

Three weeks after my eighth birthday, I found myself dressed in a white jumpsuit listening to a talk about baptism. I had been awaiting this day for most of my conscious life and was eager to be the center of attention as I made a commitment to God in front of my family and religious community. Imagine my surprise that morning, then, when I realized I was one of ten kids there to get baptized. It turned out my special day was a lot of other kids’ special day too. Sitting in a row with a slew of other eight-year-olds in their ritual uniforms while someone delivered a generic talk about covenants and being washed clean seemed to diminish the uniqueness of my own choice. Even at eight, I wanted this weighty moment in my life to feel relevant to me personally and not just be another Church obligation.

As Amelia’s post yesterday thoughtfully addressed, there is one place in particular where this impersonal approach to LDS rituals and ordinances can be especially uninspired. The Mormon funeral can have a reputation for failing to honor the individual soul by being primarily concerned with using the occasion as an opportunity to preach the plan of salvation and proselytize the uninitiated or inactive, rather than focus on the singularity of the person who has passed. My Mormon understanding that every person is a unique and known spirit child of Heavenly Parents would seem to require that in the final public ritual that marks the end of life we do more than reduce every person’s life to a simple moral lesson. Perhaps I won the “leadership lottery,” but over the course of my life as a member of the LDS Church I have witnessed many examples of leaders stepping out of the way so that family members could plan and carry out funerals that celebrated the lives of their loved ones and allow the living to mourn with meaning, even if sometimes unconventionally.

During our six years in Boston, our small ward lost several of its most vibrant members to tragic accidents, old age, and illness. As our ward geared up for each of these funerals, consideration of how to best pay tribute to the individuals themselves was the single driving force behind the planning.

For one member who had been a free-thinking hippie and martial arts expert both before and after his conversion to the Church twenty years earlier, the funeral (held in an LDS chapel) began with a rousing round of war-protest songs from the sixties led by an old friend wielding a fierce folk guitar. In addition to the moving eulogy delivered by his son, there was a martial arts demonstration, and the pulpit was opened up for friends to offer thoughts on their experiences with this remarkable man. Being able to hear from people who knew him not only as a Church member, but as a colleague, friend, and cancer patient, ensured that his life was represented with a fullness that a talk on Mormon theology could never have provided. Celebrating him in this way was healing for everyone present (including, I believe, the stake president who clapped awkwardly but sincerely as the congregation belted out the civil rights hymn, “We Shall Overcome”).

At the funeral of another member who died too young, friends and family were given the chance to offer spontaneous remembrances. As part of her tribute, his widow set the CD player to his favorite song, Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Though it had no particular religious message, there was something poignant about the congregation experiencing and contemplating this piece of his everyday life, imagining what it was that drew our friend to this song. His scriptures, only a few years old since his recent conversion, sat prominently on the pulpit, the faux leather partially melted from where they frequently came in contact with his motorcycle muffler. This image felt more hopeful, more full of the gritty realities of salvation, than any church talk.

Several years earlier, the small rural town my parents lived in suffered the loss, in a few-months’ span, of two young men who died in tragic accidents while serving foreign LDS missions. My parents, both bluegrass musicians, were asked to perform at the funerals. Even though members of the Quorum of the Twelve were expected to be in attendance, neither the bishop nor the stake president interfered with the families’ funeral plans, even when they requested to use non-Church music for part of the programs. At the conclusion of one of these funerals, Elder David B. Haight approached my parents and remarked that he felt “the guitar, when played correctly, is the most spiritual of all the instruments.” The willingness of the local leadership to honor the personalities of these young men and permit their families to honor them as their sons and brothers and not just as missionaries was an example of “mourning with those who mourn” that helped quell some of the “spirit-world missionary” talk so many in our culture are eager to revert to in painful and incomprehensible situations like these.

Perhaps the most loving way we can honor those we have lost and truly mourn with those who mourn is by trying less to make meaning out of life and death itself and instead create a space where we can collectively remember and revere the richness of each individual. If you can, please feel free to share stories from your own experience when an LDS funeral was particularly successful at commemorating the deceased and what factors were at work in making that happen.

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33 Responses

  1. Macha says:

    Awesome post. I couldn’t agree more. Don’t you think more people, who may be non-LDS or LDS but don’t practice, would be more touched by the LDS faith if they find that it is common practice to honor the deceased in such a personal. loving way? That’s how I feel about it.

    • Aimee says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Macha. The shared loss of a loved one should be the ideal time to connect with those outside our faith. I love the LDS belief in eternally progressing souls who maintain their identity and personality even after this life. Honoring that belief in our funeral practices would result not only in more lively and personal funerals (in my opinion) but would reveal a particular element of our faith that I find especially humane and believe others would as well. Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. Whoa-man says:

    I completely agree. This post gives me back some hope and optimism in our faith’s approach to the big rituals in life that rumination on the CHI and obtuse leaders takes away. I think that you can’t honor someone personally in a uniform way. Your post highlights ways that we can and even shows that “those at the top” honor and see the beauty in adaptive spirituality (by which I mean being open to personal revelation and creative approaches to Church Handbook policies with the pure intent to give comfort and love) . I wish all funerals were as you describe. I hope mine is.

  3. Corktree says:

    “Perhaps the most loving way we can honor those we have lost and truly mourn with those who mourn is by trying less to make meaning out of life and death itself and instead create a space where we can collectively remember and revere the richness of each individual.” This sums it all up so well. Thank you for sharing these stories Aimee.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the last family funeral I attended, for my great grandmother. I surprised myself by being more emotional than I normally get when I saw her body, and cried along with my maternal grandmother as we stood there, even though it was her time to go. I don’t know how I feel about viewings in general, but in this case, it seemed important that her body was so prominent during the service, as it was held at a funeral parlor that was set up well for that. I also thought it was wonderful that her immediate family members held a sort of greeting line for everyone that came. It seems a strange custom that mirrors a wedding reception, but the opportunity it gave to connect family members at that specific moment was powerful. I don’t remember if any “authorities” spoke – just a line of family members whose lives were better because she cared for them in some way. It was both beautiful and difficult to say goodbye – especially as my mom and I sang a folk song duet (singing in public is hard for me, but singing while crying is a disaster!).

    And somehow, even though we ended at an LDS chapel after the burial for a RS sponsored funeral lunch, the memory is good. I do think the opportunity to serve others by providing aid in the form of food is a positive aspect of our tradition, I just wish it were more adaptable. In fact, one of the most spiritual moments I had as a young wife in the church, was coordinating a funeral luncheon for a less active family in New Hampshire whose son had committed suicide. I was the RS secretary, but the RS Pres and a counselor were out of town, so I was thrown head first into an opportunity to help others in a simple way that I never would have understood otherwise. In this case, however, we brought food to the house for a sort of wake for the family, and it was a very valuable service. It was a good lesson for me on the importance of community, one that I should remember more often.

    • Aimee says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience here. I am touched by many of your thoughts–about the importance of your great-grandmother’s body at the funeral, about the strange comfort of a Relief Society potluck, about how you learned how to pass this on to others in their time if need as well.

      Something that would be really interesting to hear more about is how prevalent certain comfort foods (I’m thinking specifically Corn Flake Funeral Potatoes) really are in Mormon funerals. How often is food made to reflect the tastes of the deceased or do we often provide the same kind of meal because we all find comfort in those predictable potatoes?

      • Corktree says:

        I was actually thinking about the nature of the foods we usually see at funerals, but didn’t want to come off as a food snob. Personally, I detest most typically Mormon food, so even though I know I won’t be around to care, I really hope there isn’t anything resembling it at my funeral. In the past, obviously, I’ve gone along with what the families want, but certain food philosophies are very important to me and a big part of my life, so I hope that whoever plans the food for mine will take that into account and respect the beliefs that I had about nutrition and food sources.
        That said, I do understand the need for comfort foods at such a time – I just think they can be made better.

        And all of the LDS funerals I’ve been to have strangely had 4 things in common. Costco rolls, ham, bagged salad and potatoes (funeral or baked). Blech.

      • Sandra says:

        I completely agree on the food- and I would love to plan the menu for my own funeral. 🙂

      • CatherineWO says:

        I have celiac disease, as to several other members of my family. I have put a note in my will that the food served at my funeral is to be gluten free.

      • Bekah says:

        Having spent 9.5 out of the last 12.5 years serving in RS presidencies, I have attended/helped coordinate/served food at quite a few funerals. One was particularly memorable because the family was expecting 200-300 people (!) for the post funeral luncheon, we decided (with the wife of the deceased) to serve fried chicken instead of ham & funeral potatoes so that we wouldn’t run out of oven space. Several extended family members (also in our ward) were do vocally upset about this departure from tradition that we had to go out & buy a ham & serve one dish of funeral potatoes in secrecy in the kitchen.

        I don’t get the whole ham/funeral potatoes deal, but I grew up in Boston where the tradition (especially outside the church) is for Italian food when someone dies.

  4. spunky says:

    Excellent post, thanks for writing it! I am probably the strangest one here, but I don’t want a funeral. I don’t have children, I live very far from family and DH and I have moved around enough that I am well aware that very few people would mourn for me, and that doesn’t bother me in the least. So- being practical, I just think the time and expense of a funeral is valueless. I prefer that if I kicked it first, that DH do something fun with his mates- fly home, have an Irish wake, go skiing, just do what he needs so he is happy. What is best for DH is more important to me than anything.

  5. amelia says:

    Like Corktree, I really love this:

    Perhaps the most loving way we can honor those we have lost and truly mourn with those who mourn is by trying less to make meaning out of life and death itself and instead create a space where we can collectively remember and revere the richness of each individual.

    Human beings are meaning making animals and it’s very difficult for us to turn off that impulse to find meaning in the inexplicable. But I think it’s so very important. I think one of the most important things we can learn is to simply let what is be and stop trying to explain it all. So often our efforts at explanation distance us from the people around us so that we can’t relate to them in very real, very emotionally human ways.

    Also, I loved your various funeral stories. I haven’t thought much about my own funeral, but I do know that I want it to be truly helpful for whoever mourns me and I’d rather it be more of a party (though I’m fine with tears at the party) than a sermon.

    • Aimee says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Amelia. I understand the impulse toward “meaning making” as there was a time I did it myself. The older I get, the less value I find in trying to concoct divine explanations for hard realities. I truly believe that God is with us in our mourning, in our need, in our longing and that we can find more peace and joy there than in trying in vain to discover why certain events have taken place.

      I haven’t thought a lot about my own funeral either. I’ve thought a lot about what I want done with my body (though I still haven’t really settled on anything yet) but my funeral feels more tricky. Mostly I just earnestly hope that with small children to raise, I won’t ever have to think about it until I’m an old lady!

  6. kelly ann says:

    Aimee, thank you for sharing such wonderful examples.

    I agree about the importance of food. However, I kind of believe funeral potatoes are also the product of the need to cook for many people … but there is no doubt in my mind that a lot of people find starchy food comforting. And there is something to be said for the opportunity to serve.

    • Aimee says:

      Yeah–I don’t think you can read too much into the funeral potatoes themselves since they are probably the most practical food for a large crowd that we have in our Church culture. Still, I think that people have come to count on them for emotional reasons as much as logistical. When trying to make meaning out of life and death (as funerals often make us want to do) it is comforting to be surrounded by the familiar. Even though I may mock their low-brow qualities in conversation, I know I always enjoy a helping as part of my Mormon funerary experience.

  7. rk says:

    Before reading yesterday’s post I didn’t know there was a big problem with Mormon funerals. The ones I have been to have been as satisfying as I could expect for me.

    “If you can, please feel free to share stories from your own experience when an LDS funeral was particularly successful at commemorating the deceased”

    I was asked to sing a funeral for an elderly woman that I had never met. She had been the only member of her family. The bishop gave a wonderful sermon. He related personal stories he had with this sister. The family made comments on how much they appreciated his talk. The bishop also did something that I have seen done at Mormon funerals. He asked all of this woman’s children to stand, then all of her grandchildren to stand and finally all of her great-grandchildren to stand. She had a very large posterity. After the funeral the funeral director said to the bishop, “I have seen funerals and I have seen funerals for thirty years, but I have never seen a preacher ask children and grandchildren to stand.” The undertaker thought that it was a wonderful idea to honor her legacy.

  8. Thank you for letting us know how LDS funerals you’ve seen have been structured to meet the needs of mourners and to honor the dead as the unique individuals they were.

    One of the most spiritual songs I’ve heard sung at a funeral service was “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” No hymn could have been as meaningful as this song for this elderly woman named Kathleen who had suffered from dementia for a decade and had finally been taken home.

  9. davidr says:

    The following comment may come across as harsh, but I’ve attended too many funerals that were marred by the self-serving sentimentality that many of the readers have described in their comments. I have also attended many funerals that were thoughtful, heartwarming, and somehow struck a balance of humor, dignity, and quiet joy in remembering the life of a good person who believed in and followed the Savior.

    • Amelia says:

      davidr, while I appreciate your effort to be honest, who the hell are you to dismiss someone else’s experience as “self-serving sentimentality”? I’m really sorry but you are not at all in the position to pass judgment on others’ experiences and that kind of judgment is not really welcome here. We each mourn and celebrate our loved ones in the ways that work for us. The conversations we’re trying to have here are about giving people a chance to discuss what has worked for them, what has not worked for them, the ways they have found to honor their loved ones and find some peace as they have mourned them.

      I would have absolutely no problem with you explaining why some of what others have talked about here does not work for *you*. it is not, however, appropriate for you to dismiss the experiences of others as selfish and empty (which is the implication of calling those experiences “self-serving sentimentality”). Perhaps rather than castigating others and then making obscure comments about how some funerals work, you could instead identify what it is that does not work for you and what it is that does. That would be a meaningful and welcome contribution to our conversation.

  10. Amy says:

    Almost two years ago, my grandfather passed away and he had an LDS funeral held in an LDS chapel. And it was a emotional, spiritual, and personally sweet experience for me to be there. Each of his ten living children got up and spoke a little about their father, his sons sang barbershop (grandpa’s favorite), and his nephew gave a moving, yet entertaining “life sketch”. On the back of the program was listed all of his descendants and it felt special to be a part of grandpa’s family even though there were many of us. Almost too many to meet in the RS room to have a special family prayer before they closed Grandpa’s casket for the last time. The songs played there were hymns, and maybe that didn’t seem strange to me, because Grandpa’s life revolved around the gospel. But Grandpa’s funeral really was one of the more sweet memories I have. So, there is my good experience…

    • Aimee says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this, Amy. It sounds like your Grandpa’s funeral was exactly the way he would have wanted it, by your description. What a perfect way to pay tribute to his life. Thanks for sharing.

  11. EmilyCC says:

    This post comes at a great time for me…this Saturday will be the one year anniversary since my FIL died. My MIL and her kids decided to do a memorial service (he was cremated) at the church with each kid sharing their favorite memories of their dad. The bishop gave truly inspired and short remarks. A nice service overall.

    The more meaningful ceremony for family and close friends came when we all went to the Grand Canyon (one of my FIL’s favorite places) and scattered his ashes a month later. It was a miserable day–cold and rainy. And, it felt fitting. Starr had done many a hike in such conditions with us, and we were doing the same for him. We sang “If You Could Hie to Kolob,” my MIL played her flute, and several grandkids shared tributes.

    • Aimee says:

      What a perfect way to celebrate Starr’s life. I love how by having both the Church service and the family service in the Grand Canyon you could pay homage to the fullness of his life.

      I have heard many successful accounts of families divvying up their funerals/memorials/wakes in this way and think it can be really healing, especially when not all members of the family share the same faith. By having both of these events, you neither have to eliminate the religion that was important to the deceased nor potentially stifle the emotions and participation of other family members who may feel excluded from the religious aspects.

      Thank you for sharing, Emily!

    • Ziff says:

      Wow, Emily, that sounds very nicely done. Thanks for writing about it.

  12. Caroline says:

    I have nothing profound to add, but I just wanted to say how much I loved reading these examples of LDS funerals that have been meaningful and unique. It gives me hope, given that I’m sure many of my family members will have LDS funerals.

  13. Lorraine says:

    this was a truly beautiful post that allowed the sharing of some profound and sacred stories. Thank you so to Aimee and each of you for contributing such private, holy, and really rather awesome stories of lives celebrated.

  14. m2theh says:

    My family loves funeral potatoes! When we were choosing food for the luncheon after my mom’s funeral, the bishop awkwardly said “we can do ham and uh…cheesy potatoes or beef and…” and my brother flat out said “in this house they are funeral potatoes,” and that’s what we had. But no jello salad!

  15. Ziff says:

    I don’t have any experiences to share, but anyone reading this thread might also be interested in experiences shared on this 2008 post at fMh.

  16. Noah says:

    All of my grandparents passed away within a fairly short interval of time. One could argue that I had three sets of grandparents because my mother remarried when I was 13 years old. Despite having spoken at one of the funerals, they all seemed unwilling to paint a holistic picture of the deceased–focusing exclusively on the good, and in retrospect I think they were short-changed. Should I die an untimely death, I would want my brother to speak at my funeral (Gosh, I should really say something about that). I think he’s the only one who would speak honestly about my failings, while providing a big-picture of what I stood for and at least attempted to accomplish.

  17. Bekah says:

    My friend’s parents moved into our ward a couple of years ago and her father passed away recently. Her oldest son and a nephew played a gorgeous tuba/euphonium hymn duet at the funeral. She told me afterward that our bishop (who tends to be very “by the book”, if “by the book” means both the CHI AND church culture/tradition) got a little anxious when they started unpacking their instruments. But the family reassured him that it would be an appropriate musical number for the chapel, so he didn’t protest. And it was both beautiful & appropriate.

    A member of the stake presidency gave the “Plan of Salvation” talk, which ended up being one of the most wonderful I have ever heard. He spoke of growing up without a father, joining the church as a teenager & being in the same ward as my friend’s family until he had served a mission & gone away to college. He told how my friend’s father had been such a powerful example in his life by loving & supporting him as he grew in the gospel. Then how surprised & pleased he had been, after 30 years, to have this same brother recognize & embrace him in a hallway at church, hundreds of miles from where they had been neighbors. He bore great tribute to that brother as a true follower of Christ, who quietly went about loving & serving others. As this man wept openly from the pulpit, I think that all of us present felt how blessed we had been to know this wondeful man, and we felt that this world was truly a better place because he had lived in it.

  18. Jane says:

    About two weeks ago my family held a funeral for my grandpa. I thought it was very in sync with his personality and what he would have wanted. He was a well known veterinarian in the small town where I grew up in CA, as a result the chapel was filled with many non LDS people.

    Two of my uncles, my mom, my brother, and myself shared stories about how he would peel oranges for his pug dogs, roast marshmallows on pitchforks for his grandkids, fish with his brother, etc etc. Songs by his favorites bands (BeeGees, the Eagles, and Johnny Cash) were played while a slideshow of him doing things he loved to do (run, garden, swim etc) was shown. My sister played a song for him on the piano. The pulpit was opened to all for the sharing of memories. Our family, and especially my grandma, was delighted to hear stories of things my grandpa did for people that we never knew of.

    It was a wonderful service that helped us remember and cherish our loved one even more. I think even though we know we will again see our loved ones who have passed on, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need time to mourn, feel loss, and sadness. While on my mission in South America one of my companions lost her mother. I was horrified to watch my mission president, his wife, and other authorities try to negate her pain through citation of the plan of salvation.

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