Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Don’t give me a Mormon funeral

WikiCommons

I may not want a Mormon funeral, but Mormon funeral potatoes, as pictured here, are A-OK. In fact, they should be required. (Photo credit: WikiCommons.)

 

I could have died yesterday.

I’m vacationing in New Zealand, and yesterday, after rather smugly congratulating myself that I was doing just fine driving on the left side of the road, I made a dumb mistake and momentarily turned into the wrong lane.

We could have gotten into an accident right then, or we could have died ten minutes later when the driver of the truck I’d inadvertently cut off banged on my window when we were stopped at a construction site, demanding to know “what the &#@*!?” I had been thinking.

He lost his homicidal look when I profusely apologized and explained I was fresh off the plane from the States. In fact, he started laughing his head off. Bloody Americans.

The point is, it’s a dangerous world, people. You never know how, or when, you’re going to bite the dust. It’s good to be prepared.

One thing I do know is that I don’t want a Mormon funeral. This desire, expressed multiple times to my family members, none of whom are Mormon, has been reinforced again to me in the last few days as I’ve read with interest the recent First Presidency statement about women and Mormon funeral practices.

As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors instructed bishops and stake presidents that from now on, women who have been through the temple to receive their endowments will not be required to have their faces veiled just before burial.

I think this is a positive change, and—as the Tribune article points out—very much in line with this month’s landmark alterations to the temple endowment in general. If women no longer need to veil their faces at any point in the temple ceremony, it becomes anachronistic and rather pointless to default to veiling after death.

And yet the whole change gives me pause, I guess because I hadn’t realized that women didn’t have this choice before. In fact, there’s a lack of choice in general about Mormon funeral practices, for both men and women. As a convert, I feel this keenly.

Mormon funerals can be very beautiful, but I don’t actually want one for myself. I’ve been to a number of them, and I’m sure they can be very comforting for the families of people who grew up LDS, but that’s not my situation. I would like my funeral to be comforting and lovely for my non-Mormon family, and I haven’t yet witnessed a Mormon funeral that would quite do that.

Ritual clothing is just one aspect of that disconnect. (However, it’s a large—and fascinating—one. How can we be so discreet about temple clothing because we don’t want outsiders to see them, except at a visitation, where every bit of it is on display?)

The bigger issue for me is the content of the funeral, and who gets to plan it. With funerals that are held in a Mormon chapel, the bishop is in charge of the whole event, unless there is a higher-ranking church leader present. According to the Church Handbook of Instruction, the bishop is supposed to consult with the family about music, speakers, and prayers. The wording of the handbook is “He considers the wishes of the family, but” he has to ensure that traditional LDS standards are upheld so that the service is “dignified” and “centered on the gospel” (18.6.4).

I’m fine with the “centered on the gospel” part, but the “dignified” part means that my religiously diverse family would be given a limited selection of slooooow. Mormon. hymns. to choose from, as well as at least one religious talk, either from the bishop himself or someone he appoints.

The reality is that many Mormon funerals are not so much centered on the whole gospel as on one aspect of it—eternal families. They’re not about the resurrection of Christ so much as the opportunity to see Grandma again if we all adhere to the Mormon way of doing life.

That’s incredibly comforting for Mormons, who believe this. For the record, I believe it too. But that message will not feel comforting to my family, who will likely consider it alienating and manipulative. And my funeral is for them, not for me or my bishop or my ward members, however much I love them.

That’s not to say I’m surrendering all control of my funeral to my family. Let’s not go crazy here. For example, I hope I’ll get to choose what I am wearing, which will not be my temple regalia. (For years I told my husband I wanted to be buried in my favorite purple suit, but alas, that’s no longer a possibility. I got overzealous about the chocolate fountain at a recent wedding reception, and the purple suit paid the sacrifice. The chocolate was worth it, BTW. I have no regrets.)

I hope they’ll sing “For All the Saints,” which is in the LDS hymnal and therefore approved. But I would love for it to be sung with a full complement of instruments, some of which are decidedly not approved, and at a tempo that’s brisk enough to clarify that the person in the casket is the only one in the room who has actually died.

Oh, and a BIG yes to funeral potatoes. And Mormon comfort food in general. My family will like that.

 


Related post:

Major changes to the Mormon temple ceremony, especially for women


 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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