How to Bury a Prophet

The Marty Center at the University of Chicago has posted this interesting article by Kathleen Flake on President Hinckley’s funeral. Here is the money passage from the piece:

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.


(ht: Marc Bohn)

24 comments for “How to Bury a Prophet

  1. Adam Greenwood
    February 7, 2008 at 1:31 pm


  2. Brad Kramer
    February 7, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    I love this.

  3. Matt Rasmussen
    February 7, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    That’s one of the beauties of the priesthood: any worthy priesthood holder can perform blessings or other ordinances with the same effect if another “higher ranking” authority is on hand. Someone’s calling in the Church doesn’t mean they can make the ordinance any more true, lasting or meaningful than the newest elder in attendance.

  4. February 7, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Matt, didn’t Elder Hinckley dedicate the grave? I know they weren’t trying to make any point (that it could have been any priesthood holder doing the dedication), but if they were, they might have chosen a non-GA son.
    (if I’m wrong about who dedicated the grave, then just ignore this)

    Ultimately, I think what Kathleen Flake said was perfect. Sometimes it seems that our funerals and grave-side services lack something, but put in this light, they are just right.

  5. Belle
    February 7, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    \”Sometimes it seems that our funerals and grave-side services lack something\”

    Graham, I\’m just curious, what do you think LDS funerals and grave-side services lack? Do you think the shortcomins are function of local leadership or a church-wide customs? I\’ve only attended a handful of funerals in my life (all LDS) and have been moved by the messages of peace and eternal families. I have, however, heard Catholic friends somewhat lament the formality of their funeral masses.

  6. Jeremy
    February 7, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    I can’t remember if I’ve already told this story in the ‘nacle. If so, sorry for the repeat.

    Not long after my father received his mission call he was diagnosed with a serious illness and had to undergo extensive surgery and treatments. Because he had already been called, the church kept tabs on his diagnosis and recovery. In fact, while he was in the hospital, he received a visit from Elder Packer. At the end of the visit, Elder Packer turned to my grandfather and said “Can I help you give your son a blessing?” This was a powerful (and, I’m sure, conscious) lesson on the connection between priesthood and family: an apostle deferring to a father’s authority.

    Grampa’s response was even better: “No thanks. Our home teacher is on his way over.”

  7. Ray
    February 7, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Wonderful post; wonderful excerpt; wonderful insight; wonderful example, Jeremy. The HT reference was priceless.

  8. February 7, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    A good reminder that Church funerals and ceremonies are primarily for the living. Dedication of the grave is the only associated ordinance performed in behalf of the deceased.

    Elder Packer has suggested that funerals are for preaching the gospel.

    I have told my Brethren in that day when my funeral is held, if any of them who speak talk about me, I will raise up and correct them. The gospel is to be preached.

    The Unwritten Order of Things

  9. February 7, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Overall, I think we do a good job with the funeral service. Mormons seems to enjoy funerals more than others. There is more laughter and good-natured reminiscing. I’ve also heard many wonderful talks that explain our beliefs to the non-members gathered that day.
    It just seems like there should be more done at the cemetery. I know what we do is important, but it just seems so short. In my area, by the time everyone gets out of the Church, into their cars, drives slowly to the cemetery, then gets out… that can take 20-30 minutes, sometimes more. Then we have a 30 second grave dedication. I have no suggestions whatsoever. I don’t even know if I want anything else. I guess having officiated at several funerals, I feel like we lead people out there (not in any mean-spirited way) and then leave them waiting for more. It’s almost like no one knows what to do next.

  10. John
    February 7, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    I don’t think it was surprising at all. It was done the way it should be done, and the way I’ve always seen it done (if there were MP holders in the family. And as for #4, I’m sure the other son could’ve dedicated the grave, but perhaps, as the oldest son, it fell to him.

  11. Julie M. Smith
    February 7, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Graham, the super-short graveside service is common for non-LDS, too. It isn’t just us.

  12. John
    February 7, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Re: #9,

    If you wait around any longer at the grave, the dinner provided by the compassionate service sisters will get cold!

  13. Mark IV
    February 7, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up, Nate. This really is wonderful.

  14. tona
    February 7, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    as crisp and insightful as I’ve come to expect from Kathleen Flake. I’m curious to know what in her piece seemed notable or “different” to non-Mormon readers. I was surprised that the graveside dedication was broadcast; it’s a priesthood ordinance, isn’t it? I don’t know why but it struck me as not something I expected would go out over the satellite.

  15. Martie
    February 7, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Clark Hinckley, the youngest of the two sons, offered the invocation, one daughter spoke, another offered the benediction, the eldest son dedicated the grave. Pretty standard LDS funeral.

  16. Alan L
    February 8, 2008 at 2:31 am

    The non – LDS funerals I have attended have been pretty grim affairs from my experience…the biggest and most disappointing point being there is no hope offered the berieved (sp) and generally the officiator didn’t know the deceased. At our funerals the family always hangs around the grave and shares the flowers, throw things into the grave (nice things), say goodby etc. Once, the gravediggers had to tell us to leave so they could get on with their job.

    Tona, without too fine a point on it, I don’t think the dedication is any more of an ordinance than the funeral itself. Yes, the dedication is done by authority of the MPriesthood, but the CH of I (pp 42 or 69 – 2006) says “if the grave is to be dedicated” and “if” the family prefers a prayer may be offered instead of a dedication. I may be wrong but I don’t think it’s any than broadcasting the general conference prayers.

  17. lamonte
    February 8, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    I especially love the fact that President Hinckly’s son came forth with confidence in the midst of the church leadership, stated his authority (equal to theirs in this case) and then dedicated the grave. For me it is further indication of God’s eternal law that we are all equal in His eyes and He is no respector of persons. Thank you Nate for sharing this with us.

  18. February 8, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I was at a funeral where the husband had told his wife (before she passed away) that he would stay there until she was totally buried. After the dedication, most people left but a few of us stayed with the man. Someone from the cemetery asked if he wanted a shovel, and he started putting the dirt on the casket. He seemed quite interested in this, and tried to get us all to put a shovel full of dirt in the hole (sorry if I’m not phrasing this very well). To the man this was his way of being with her and helping his wife, right to the end. It might sound odd, but the overall feeling of those of us who were there was that it was quite uplifting.

  19. Mark D.
    February 8, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    The “church is not forever”? Where did that come from?

  20. Marjorie Conder
    February 9, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I was at a funeral a few years ago when after the dedicatory prayer, the husband of the deceased woman stood and said they were now going to participate in filling the grave. He invited anyone who wanted to participate with them and if anyone was offended, he invited them to leave. Everyone stayed. I think doing something physical was very cathartic. Everyone who was able, shoveled and shoveled. Then people started saying, “This one is for (someone who wasn’t there)” either dead or alive. Even little kids shoveled away. It was amazing. Virtually everyone who was there that day said, “Do that at my funeral.”

  21. Ellis
    February 9, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    #19 The “church is not forever”? Where did that come from?

    Priesthood and Church Government by John A Widstoe p. 45 “The Church of God is the organized institution to which has been given the authority of God to perform, according to the Great Plan, the necessary work on earth for man’s salvation.” That being the case, there is no need for a church beyond mortality.

    Some funerals are done completely at the graveside. My aunt has expressed her wish that she for only a graveside service. I can’t imagine exactly how that would go, but I imagine her wishes will be honored. I remember one funeral where the mourners were given white balloons that they released at the graveside. That seemed to have a special meaning for those involved.

  22. February 9, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I appreciated Flake’s sentiment as expressed in the paragraphs above. I do have one small quibble. Flake writes, “As the church teaches is the case in the afterlife, only the family remained.” This isn’t what I was taught. While ultimately, ecclesiastical orders will be replaced by patriarchal (family) orders, that isn’t going to be the case immediately after we die.

    Wilford Woodruff on post-mortal priesthood callings, as quoted by Elder McConkie:

    “The same Priesthood exists on the other side of the vail [sic]. Every man who is faithful in his quorum here will join his quorum there. When a man dies and his body is laid in the tomb, he does not lose his position. The Prophet Joseph Smith held the keys of this dispensation on this side of the vail, and he will hold them throughout the countless ages of eternity. He went into the spirit world to unlock the prison doors and to preach the Gospel to the millions of spirits who are in darkness, and every Apostle, every Seventy, every Elder, etc., who has died in the faith as soon as he passes to the other side of the vail, enters into the work of the ministry, and there is a thousand times more to preach there than there is here.”

  23. Ellis
    February 9, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    The Priesthood and the Church are not the same thing. The Priesthood is necessary for the Church, but the Church isn’t necessary for the Priesthood. On the other hand some people believe, and it may be true, that the post mortal spirit world is part of the “day of this life.” In which case there might be some kind of organization or congregation just as there is organized missionary work. I don’t think it is required though. Maybe it doesn’t matter as long as the Priesthood continues.

    The time after the final judgment there will clearly be no more need for preaching because the “day of this life” will definitely be gone.

  24. Ray
    February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

    Honestly, I don’t care if the Church continues in the afterlife or not – as long as I’m not disappointed in where I am.

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