Mourn with Those that Mourn: The Problems with Mormon Funerals
A few years ago, my dear friend J’s father, D, died. He was a very sweet man and his children wanted to honor his memory at the funeral. D had grown up in rural Idaho and had always loved the old 50s cowboy shows; “Home on the Range” was one of his favorite songs. When J and her siblings met with D’s bishop to discuss funeral arrangements, they indicated that they’d like to have someone sing “Home on the Range” in D’s honor. The bishop referred to the Church Handbook of Instructions (CHI), which says: “Music for funerals might include prelude music, an opening hymn, special musical selections, a closing hymn, and postlude music. Simple hymns and other songs with gospel messages are most appropriate for these occasions.” While this passage doesn’t explicitly forbid secular music, D’s bishop interpreted it in that fashion and refused to approve using “Home on the Range” during D’s funeral. J’s siblings went along with the bishop with no real resistance, and J was left feeling sad that they could not honor their father with this song he had loved.
This is not the only Mormon funeral I know of that hasn’t been very considerate of the mourners. There’s the Stake President delivering a long sermon on the Plan of Salvation at the funeral of a young mother without thought about her small children’s need to mourn in a way suitable to them, or about how hard it was for them to sit for so long. There’s the church leader using a man’s death from lung cancer caused by his smoking habit as an example of why people shouldn’t smoke–true, but not exactly helpful for mourners. There’s the well-meaning church member repeating the notion that someone died because God needed her more than her family did; again, not exactly comforting to mourners. There’s the exclusion of inactive or un-endowed or excommunicated or non-member family members from helping prepare the body of a loved one for burial. There’s the bishop who, at the funeral of a woman murdered by her husband, said he just knew the murdered woman had forgiven her murderer and so should everyone in attendance; forgiveness is a beautiful and important principle, but this comment was not very considerate of the raw emotions caused by this kind of domestic violence leading to the death of a loved one.
The church has no formal rituals associated with death, but there is a certain pattern to Mormon funerals. The CHI states that “each person must experience death in order to receive a perfected, resurrected body. Teaching and testifying about the plan of salvation, particularly the Savior’s Atonement and Resurrection, is an essential purpose of the services associated with a Church member’s death.” As a result, most Mormon funerals include some talk about the Plan of Salvation–often that talk runs longer than any other element of the funeral. The CHI also establishes that the meeting should open and close with prayer and a hymn, just like a Sacrament Meeting. It specifies that the rituals and customs of other religions should not be incorporated into the meeting. This is understandable, but given the overlap of religious and cultural customs, it could also mean denying comforting rituals to mourners, especially in a part-member family or at the funeral of a convert.
Any funeral held in a Mormon church building must be conducted by the bishop or Stake President. The CHI specifies that any funeral conducted by a bishop should be considered a “Church meeting and a religious service.” As such, the bishop considers the family’s input but has ultimate say over what can be included. The event is meant to be reverent and dignified. According to the CHI, the family can’t use a digital presentation to commemorate the deceased during a funeral in a church building or which a bishop conducts.
The CHI instructs: “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.” This seems backwards to me. In my mind, a funeral should be primarily about commemorating the life of the person who has died, celebrating who that person was and the relationships she had with others. It seems wrong to me that a funeral should be more about teaching the gospel than about paying tribute to the deceased.
I have been to lovely Mormon funerals. But as the various examples I shared above illustrate, Mormon funerals are often problematic. And I think that has a lot to do with the way the CHI defines them as just another church meeting at which the gospel should be taught, rather than defining their primary purpose as allowing those who mourn to mourn and to do so in the company of a community that has, after all, covenanted to “mourn with those that mourn.” Given the number of non-members likely to be in attendance in most places, funerals are sometimes conceived of as missionary opportunities; too often this aspect of Mormon funerals becomes pre-eminent and we forget that they should help in the mourning process, rather than being just another tool for spreading the gospel. The problem with that is that people too often leave feeling like they have not been afforded the opportunity to grieve for and celebrate the loved one they have lost.
As part of the Exponent series about death and the grieving and rituals that go with it, we’d like to give you the opportunity to share your own stories and experiences. Here are my questions for you:
1. I understand the reasons behind the various guidelines given in the CHI, but I believe they can be misapplied resulting in a funeral that is not very comforting for the mourners in attendance. That said, I think they could also be applied very well in order to provide comfort. How do you think the guidelines I’ve noted above could be appropriately applied to help those in attendance mourn? How can they be balanced so that the meeting isn’t turned into just another Sunday meeting or little more than a missionary opportunity?
2. What are some of the less successful funeral practices you have seen? How might you have changed those funerals to better help those mourning? How might you have changed those funerals to better honor and celebrate the memory of the deceased?