Historic Funeral Traditions: Mormons

Monument to four generations of a branch of the Smith family, prominent in LDS history.

Monument to four generations of a branch of the Smith family, prominent in LDS history.

Mormons, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Mormons see themselves as a new branch of Christianity; therefore, they often use Christian funeral practices, but they have developed a culture and customs that include how they see death and bury their dead.

For instance, the emotions that surround a Mormon funeral rite usually combine sorrow and hope, as they believe that the soul separates from the body at death and they anticipate a reunion with their deceased loved ones when they die, too. These emotions are shared in gatherings as the body is viewed at a funeral home. Preparing a body for viewing is based upon Temple Worthy status. To be Temple Worthy means that the person holds the highest degree of member commitment. This status is indicated by robes and undergarments worn during the endowment ceremony and during burial.

In areas of the country were a high population of Temple Worthy individuals live, the funeral home may be familiar with the custom of dress during burial. In other parts of the country where funeral homes are unfamiliar with Mormon custom, the family may dress the deceased for burial at the funeral home – men dress men and women dress women (similar to the Amish). Those individuals who are not Temple Worthy are dressed in whatever clothing the family chooses.

Mormon funerals usually are held in an LDS chapel or a mortuary under the direction of the bishop of the ward. Funerals open and close with sacred music and prayer, sometimes involving congregational singing or a choir. It is customary for a church member to begin the service with a prayer on behalf of the family, and the funeral includes reminiscences and eulogies as well as talks about the Atonement, the Resurrection, life after death, and related doctrines that comfort and inspire the bereaved.

Graveside services usually are simple, and attended only by family and friends. Mormon cemeteries are similar to other Christian cemeteries in that the dead are buried on an east-west axis. Before 1904, when the practice of plural marriage ended with the Second Manifesto, a man was buried with his wives in a row next to him.

One who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood, usually a member or close friend of the family, dedicates the grave asking God to protect it as a hollowed resting place until the resurrection. Local law in some countries may dictate cremation rather than burial, but in the absence of such a law, burial is preferred because of its doctrinal symbolism. Ultimately, however, the decision is left to the family of the deceased. Bishops are counseled to show regard for family wishes. The grave site often becomes a sacred spot for the family of the deceased to visit and care for.

Mormon headstones often are simple affairs, but many contain detailed genealogical information, especially the woman’s maiden name. Headstones that mark a married couple’s grave may include a marriage date, if not all the names of the parents and children. Symbols include the all-seeing eye of God, which also is common on Masonic headstones. This symbol stems from the time when Mormon leaders associated with Freemasons during the nineteenth century.

Other headstone symbols include a hand of God descending from a cloud, the handshake, a beehive (industriousness) or a sandblasted image of the membership temple or the temple where a couple was married. The significance of the temple indicates the union will extend past the resurrection into eternity.

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