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.