February 7, 2008
How to Bury a Prophet
— Kathleen Flake
The Latter-day Saints buried their prophet on Saturday. Thousands attended
the service in person and millions more faithful watched in chapels around
the globe, as well as on the internet. What they saw was an unusually
personal ceremony for a very public man who led and to large degree defined
the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Notwithstanding
the numbers and titles of participants, Gordon Hinckley's funeral was
a family affair both in word and sacrament. It was an extraordinary display
of what makes Mormonism tick.
Gordon Hinckley died at the age of ninety-seven, having been in the church's leading councils since 1958 and serving as its fifteenth president since 1995. He shaped the church through a half century of growth in one hundred and seventy countries. A third of its present membership joined during his tenure as president. Displaying remarkable vigor late in life, he met with church members on every continent, responding to their needs with curricular, welfare, and building programs whose costs are impossible to imagine and no one will admit. He met the press to a degree unequaled and with an openness heretofore unknown among Mormonism's leadership. This effort too was largely successful. No less a cynic than CBS's Mike Wallace admitted that Hinckley "fully deserves the almost universal admiration that he gets." He was, as Newsweek's Jon Meacham said, "a charming and engaging man, an unlikely prelate — and all the more impressive for that." The same could be said of his funeral.
Hinckley's funeral was an unlikely but impressive mix of the sacramental and the mundane, in large part because it observed Mormonism's custom that families bury their dead. The family designs the memorial program, participates actively in it, and performs the ordinances that send their loved ones off to the next life. Yes, the chapel in this case was the LDS Conference center that held 21,000 mourners; the lay pastor who conducted the meeting was Thomas Monson, Hinckley's presumptive successor as "prophet, seer, and revelator;" and the music was provided by the three-hundred-plus member Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But, in all other essentials, the service was performed by the family. A son gave the invocation. Monson conducted at the request of the family, he said, not by ecclesiastical right. The eulogy was given by a daughter who described her father's life as half-way point in a now seven-generation story of sacrifice, death, and survival that is the Mormon saga. Explicitly gathering the millions watching into that story, she declared "we are one family sharing an inheritance of faith." Friends with high titles spoke next. Though the requisite list of Hinckley's ecclesiastical accomplishments was given, it was subordinated to his success as a courageous and amusing friend and a successful husband and father. Another daughter gave the benediction: "We are buoyed by the knowledge that we will see him again as family, as friends."
Hinckley's sons and daughters with their spouses led the casket out of the hall and between an honor guard of church authorities. Cameras followed the mourners, focusing on his five children, twenty-five grandchildren and sixty-two great-grandchildren who formed the cortege to the cemetery. There, possibly most surprisingly, the eldest son dedicated the grave without fanfare. Notwithstanding the presence of the entire church hierarchy, the son stepped forward to pronounce: "By the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood, I dedicate this grave for the remains of Gordon B. Hinckley, until such time as thou shall call him forth." Then, church leaders were "dismissed," as Monson put it. As the church teaches is the case in the afterlife, only the family remained.
Families are, as Latter-day Saints like to say, forever. What they don't say is that the church is not forever. It is only the instrument for endowing families with the right and duty to mediate the gifts of the gospel to their members, thereby sealing the willing among them as families in the life to come. This was Hinckley's message as a prophet. As he would have it and as the best Mormon funerals do, his message was embodied and enacted by his family who blessed him in death, no less than in life. This is how the Latter-day Saints, at least, bury a prophet.
Kathleen Flake is an associate professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion.
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