Recently, Professor Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., who has written a history of the Reed Smoot hearings in the U.S. Senate and is LDS, wrote an essay for the Washington Post On Faith Web page. In her essay, How to bury a prophet, she explains how the funeral of President Gordon B. Hinckley is an example of how families have the highest priority in Mormonism, even over the formal categories of Church organization and office. It can be found here.
Mormon funerals have a minimal formal outline, including personal tributes by family members, sermons about the afterlife and the resurrection through the Atonement of Christ, and music. One Mormon funeral I attended was for a close family friend, Tatsui Sato, a remarkable Japanese man who was possibly the first person baptized into the LDS Church in Japan after World War II. He was a chemical engineering professor fluent in English, and went on to translate the LDS scriptures into Japanese, and Japanese genealogy records into English. The person who baptized his wife was an Air Force pilot named Boyd K. Packer, who is now the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When Elder Packer spoke at Brother Sato's funeral, it was a talk by the former pilot who had learned Japanese children's songs from Brother Sato's son. The fact that he is an Apostle was not part of his role that day.
A point to remember is this: every faithful Mormon man is a priest, capable of ministering in the ordinances of the Church. Every adult son is a priest who can dedicate a grave as a temporary resting place for his father.
The priesthood is exercised most often in the context of family needs: baptizing children; laying hands on them to give the Gift of the Holy Ghost; ordaining to successive stages of the priesthood of young men at ages 12, 14 and 16, culminating in their being ordained elders at age 18 preparatory to serving a mission or going off to college or serving as a missionary. Fathers give blessings to family members when they are sick and when they are facing challenges.
Gordon B. Hinckley's eldest son, as it so happens, is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, patterned after the 70 missionaries ordained by Christ to assist the apostles. But it was in his capacity as son and priesthood holder that he dedicated his father's grave, just as he probably gave his father a blessing or two during his recent illness. As Kathleen Flake notes, Mormons believe the Church is temporary, while it is the family that is eternal, and that our most important and original relationship to Heavenly Father is as His children.
Positions in the Church are transitory for those outside the 85 positions that are full time, life-long church callings (the 70, the 12 apostles, and the President and his two counselors, also apostles). A leader of a couple thousand Mormons in several congregations in a city like Boston may serve in that capacity for a number of years, but eventually the day comes that he is released and might become, a week later, a Sunday School teacher. That is what happened to Mitt Romney. The positions belong to the Lord and the Church, not to the individual who holds them for a time.
Mormons even have catch phrases that remind them of this. "No other success can compensate for failure in the home," said David O. McKay, president of the Church from 1952 to 1970. That means, very pointedly, not just success in a profession but also in the Church organization. Fathers are reminded that their families come before their church callings.
One thing this viewpoint does is make each congregation function a little like an extended family. The people you attend church with are those who live inside a boundary line drawn at Church headquarters. You don't get to shop around for a better looking bishop. You are stuck with your fellow congregants, just as you are with your brothers and sisters. And we call each other by those titles: Brother Wagstaff and Sister Kumagai, Brother Hernandez and Sister Wisniewski. By learning to put up with each other's shortcomings, and they with ours, we get to practice the real meaning of commandments like, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Even when she may not seem lovable.
When Newsweek profiled Mitt Romney, it started out by recounting a conversation with Romney about the small church building where his family had attended church for a few years when they first arrived in Michigan. The reporter expected Romney would act like a typical politician and reminisce about the pastor and some homely story told to the youth. Romney didn't because the pastor in that very small group was probably his own Dad. And even if he weren't, it is not the bishops and youth teachers who stick in our memories, that form our lives as Mormons, but our own parents. The bishops come and go, but parents are forever. It is their influence that is the most decisive in forming a young Mormon into an adult Mormon. And Romney has told many stories about the influence of his Dad, who was quite literally the pastor, the religious minister of his family. As is every good Mormon father.
As was Gordon B. Hinckley.