Like people, wards (local LDS congregations) in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have their own personalities.
In 2002, the ward in which my family lived was a fun, energetic ward despite the reality that we were aging. We had widows, widowers and older married couples who added stability, wisdom and a nurturing spirit. I was serving as the bishop and having these “tried and true” souls upon whom I could trust and depend was an extreme blessing to a very inexperienced bishop.
As time went by, some of these vintage Saints passed away. In fact, it seemed that someone had given them the green light to leave this life and enter the Spirit World all at once. Many of them sat on the back row of our chapel and began to die one-by-one in the order they sat. It got so obvious that I stood up in Sacrament Meeting and asked that no one sit on the back row. I was conducting so many funerals that some in the ward began to call me Bishop Death.
Doing so many funerals taught me much about service, grief, hope, love and the glorious Plan of our Heavenly Father; the good news. I learned the impact the Plan of Salvation has on those who pass through almost unbearable sadness. I was also taught, with some spiritual force, how important it is to attend these faith-filled good-byes.
In our faith we believe with all our hearts that we can be sealed, unbreakably bound, to our families for eternity. We solemnly declare that death is just another step in the plan and that we will, one day, be reunited with our loved ones.
However, this doesn’t mean we don’t mourn the loss of ones so special to us. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “ hope stands quietly with us at funerals. Our tears are just as wet, but not because of despair. Rather, they are tears of heightened appreciation evoked by poignant separation” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 61).
We grieve, sometimes terribly, but we grieve with hope and faith in Jesus Christ and in the reality of the Resurrection.
I love what the apocryphal writings of Jasher record when Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the alter to be sacrificed: “And the hearts of Abraham and Isaac rejoiced at this thing which the Lord had commanded them; but the eye wept bitterly whilst the heart rejoiced (Jasher 23:64, italics added)." That is an accurate definition of an LDS funeral.
In Gethsemane, when Jesus was about to partake of the bitter cup, he asked three of his closest friends, Peter, James and John, to simply be with him. “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38). He didn’t ask them to fix it or talk about it. He didn’t counsel with them or ask them to work through the problem. He just wanted the comfort of knowing his friends, the ones he loved, were nearby.
I quickly learned that there was almost nothing I could say or do that would ease the grief of those who had just lost loved ones. No matter how many times I said “I’m sorry” or the amount of “funeral potatoes” the Relief Society brought over, or even the depth of Plan of Salvation testifying, there was very little that lifted the darkness of the long nights. All I could do was be there, to “tarry,” to “watch."
The commandment to all disciples of Christ is to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). We don’t have to know what to say or do. We just have to be there, be close and be ready.
One thing we can do, indeed must do, is attend funeral or memorial services. This is “watching” with the family in their most desperate time of need. We may not have known the deceased well, or even at all, but for the family to see the caring concern of their ward family is exactly what the Savior would have us do. Though it may not be easy (there are a million excuses that will get us out of attending funerals), it is one of the most important meetings we will ever attend.
Many of us belong to these unique ward families. We worship, learn, laugh, care, at times even argue and bicker. But most of all, we are simply there; to do, to be, whatever is needed.
It’s just what families do.
Troy Parker lives in Molalla, Ore., with his wife, Jill, and two sons.