Culture Shock Any time you move to a new country you have to go through a multiple-stage adjustment called culture shock. This transition takes you all the way from the joys and excitement of something totally new through the missing of the old ways, to resentment of the new ways, to eventual acceptance of the new ways because you learned how to integrate by coming to know what is expected and how to deal with all the new behaviors. (Wow, a whole lesson in culture shock in one sentence!)
What I am about to talk about refers mainly to Utah Mormon culture, but to some extent it will apply to most of the Mormon world, or the world culture of the Latter-day Saints. As with any broad and sweeping declarations of culture there are those who have not experienced certain parts of that culture and will take exception to the declaration, feeling like it really does not apply. Fine, be that way. LOL
My point is, many, if not most will experience some of what I am talking about here, and this is a heads up to be tolerant and aware so that you can learn to see what is cultural in the Mormon way of doing things and what is doctrinal in the Mormon way of doing things. Being cultural and doctrinal are usually two very different things.
Funerals Because of our conviction that our loved ones are probably still in the room with us after they die, and can see and hear all that is going on at the funeral, treating the deceased with immense solemnity is not uppermost in our minds. This is different of course if we are gathered together for something very sad, like a suicide. We really can behave ourselves when we need to. Sometimes we might be accused of using too much levity at funerals. We don’t exactly turn it into a wake, but we have every expectation that we will be with our dearly departed soon enough, and that in the meantime they will be gainfully employed in Church callings on the other side of the veil, so we don’t really need to worry about their state of affairs. As a result the talks at the funeral might be seen by some to contain too many jokes or lighthearted stories. There may be outright laughing in the congregation. Mind you I am not talking about Comedy night at the local establishment, I am talking about fond memories being shared by those who were closest to the deceased.
The program If the deceased has lived a long life, then chances are there will be a large number of relatives gathered, and almost the whole center of the chapel will be reserved for the family, which could be of considerable size. We generally have a viewing of the deceased in the Relief Society room for a couple of hours before the funeral. The family generally gathers around and stands by the casket shaking people’s hands or giving and receiving hugs as the viewers pay their respects.
When the viewing is over there is a brief time when all the guests are shooed away and the family gathers together to have a prayer and close the casket in private. When my father’s dad passed away the funeral was held in the funeral home. It was the first time most of us had seen each other in years. We got so busy catching up with relatives that the funeral director had to come in and chide us for not being duly respectful to the deceased. Frankly we had momentarily forgotten Grandpa was in the room. But I’m sure he was pleased to see his descendants getting along so famously.
The family members then go into the chapel and the casket is brought to the front, below the pulpit or just off to the side. There is a prayer, the hymn, and the opening by the Bishop, who generally conducts such things. After that it is really a family program to do whatever the family decides to do. In an active LDS family there will almost always be a talk about the plan of salvation, more for the benefit of the less active members and the members of other faiths in attendance than for the active members. This helps to explain to the others why we are not so crushed that grandpa is actually gone. We assume we haven’t seen the last of him and that we will be living with him for the rest of eternity. This is just a small fare-thee-well until such time as we can be reunited again. Besides, now he is with grandma and is probably much happier than he was two weeks ago when he was in so much misery.
At the end of the services the pall bearers take the casket to the funeral coach, which then leads the procession to the gravesite. There we have another family gathering (well most of the family anyways, there are plenty who stayed behind to start lunch in the church house kitchen). This time there is a dedication of the grave by a priesthood holder (this part is doctrinal) to act as a final resting spot for the deceased until they are called upon to rise from their grave in the Second Coming. Once the graveside service is over everyone heads back to the church for lunch.
Funeral food Funeral lunches are a big deal to most Mormons, as most people don’t want to place a big burden on the family of the deceased to entertain, so they pitch in with great relish (yes, that is a pun) and cook great quantities of food. Utah Mormons are famous for mainly two funeral foods that frequently show up in great quantities at funerals, Green Jell-O and Funeral Potatoes. Just so you can get a sense of how important these two foods are culturally to Utah Mormons, I have linked each food to a website that has recipes in case you want to experiment for yourself with what these two funeral staples have to offer to your family. I will warn you up front that funeral potatoes are know for their volumes of cheese. And no one in the world eats more green Jell-O than Utah Mormons. Please note that all funeral food is considered comfort food. This is not the time nor that place to put people on diets. If you are going to cook for a funeral, do so with the intent of drowning sorrows at the table.
Variations on a Theme I live in Hawaii, surrounded by Polynesians, who come with an eating culture that causes anything Utah can do to pale in shame. In our community the culture of eating at funerals got way out of hand with families getting into serious debt to pay for the food. A few decades ago a wise Stake President instituted a change in local customs and requested that multiple-day feasting (as was traditional in the Polynesian cultures) be replaced by sandwiches at the viewing prior to the funeral. That change has persisted to this day.
In Polynesian culture it is considered shameful to be stingy with food. When a meal is served it is expected that those you have invited over will be sent home with not just plates heaped with leftovers, but possibly roasting pans full of food as well. That is just what is expected. Now times that by a funeral of 600 people over a multiple day period and you can imagine the burden on the family of the deceased. Our Ward parties are still a feed and a half, but at funerals people are assigned a bag of sandwiches. The Relief Society sisters are asked to bring one loaf of sandwiches, which means buy a loaf of bread and make it into sandwiches. We generally have a variety of sandwiches from which to choose, tuna, pb&j, lunch meat, and most assuredly SPAM sandwiches. We have to have SPAM or it isn’t from Hawaii.
So there you have it. That is a basic Mormon funeral. Any location on the planet will have its variation, but that is the basic drift of how we do funerals. I would love to hear of any interesting customs you have in your local area. You can include them in the comments section below.