A little more than a month ago, my father died. He suffered a stroke at the Sunday dinner table, followed by a fatal heart attack a couple of hours later. Although he was 80 years old, his death was a tremendous shock. A few weeks before his death, my father told me that he had been pronounced healthy during a recent medical checkup. My father was so optimistic about his future that he celebrated by buying a new pickup truck.

Much of the past month has been a blur. I've learned that the funeral ritual is very important because it gives people who are overwhelmed with grief something concrete to do. One small task propels you to the next. We were very much on autopilot, buoyed by the kindnesses of friends and family.

The funeral gave us tremendous solace, especially the military rites. The local VFW Lodge performed the beautiful ritual at my father's graveside, replete with a 21-gun salute, "Taps," and the presentation of the American flag to my mother. My father, who was very proud of his service in World War II, would have loved it.

I couldn't help but think of other families across the nation who were experiencing military rites that same day. Veterans of my father's generation die by the thousands each week. Add to that the more than 2,200 American service members killed since the war in Iraq began in 2003.

There's no way to know whose grief is worse — a widow such as my mother, married 54 years to my father, or the parents of a young service member whose life was cut short in combat. My mother has lost a part her past while the families of today's service members lose a part of their future. They each deserve compassion and support. They deserve dignity.

They deserve far better than the antics of members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who have protested around the country at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq. They claim that U.S. soldiers are dying because God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality. They picket funerals with signs with slogans that say things like "God Hates Fags" or "Thank God for IEDs," referring to improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq.

It's unconscionable.

Five states have enacted laws to force protesters to keep their distance from military funerals. Church officials say they will not violate the law, which makes me wonder how committed they are to their so-called principles.

A handful of church members were at it again in Michigan on Monday, protesting at a funeral of Army Cpl. Nyle Yates III. The 22-year-old died March 16 in Bayji when he came under small arms fire by enemy forces during combat.

It was despicable enough when the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of AIDS victims. How this is done in the name of religion escapes me.

Now to show up at soldiers' funerals? What are they thinking?

In the interest of furthering a twisted political agenda, they denigrate the service of men and women who are defenders of freedom — rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of expression. By extension, they denigrate men like my father, who was wounded in combat and briefly held a prisoner of war.

And I have to wonder, when a group goes out of its way to compound the pain of grief-stricken families, is their fear-mongering even effective? Or does it simply expose them as the shameless kooks they are?

Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com