Associate Professor, Religious History
Kathleen Flake is associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. more »
The Latter-day Saints buried their prophet on Saturday. Thousands attended the service in person and millions more faithful watched in chapels around the globe, as well as on the internet. What they saw was an unusually personal ceremony for a very public man who led and to large degree defined the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Notwithstanding the numbers and titles of participants, Gordon Hinckley’s funeral was a family affair both in word and sacrament. It was an extraordinary display of what makes Mormonism tick.
Gordon Bitner Hinckley died at the age of 97, having been in the church’s leading councils since 1958 and served as its fifteenth president since 1995. He shaped the church through a half century of growth in 160 countries. A third of its present membership joined during his tenure as president. His counsel to them was more practical than sublime: be better neighbors, stand a little taller, and choose the right. He was much loved for living these virtues. Displaying remarkable vigor late in life, he traveled to meet church members on every continent, responding to their needs with curricular, welfare, and building programs whose costs are impossible to imagine and no one will admit.
He met the press also to a degree unequaled and with an openness heretofore unknown among Mormonism’s leadership. This effort too was largely successful. No less a cynic than CBS’s Mike Wallace admitted Hinckley “fully deserves the almost universal admiration that he gets.” The qualifier is a necessary reference to many who distrusted Hinckley’s representations of Mormonism as Christian and his insistence that marriage was properly limited to a man and a woman. At the other extreme, to critics within who felt he gave up too much in a Larry King interview, Hinckley responded simply: “I know the doctrines of this church as well as any.” His outreach was interfaith, not ecumenical. There was no stauncher advocate of Joseph Smith’s claim to have restored the fullness of the Christian gospel and church than Gordon Hinckley. He was, as Newsweek’s Jon Meacham said, “a charming and engaging man, an unlikely prelate — and all the more impressive for that.”
The same could be said of his funeral. It was an unlikely but impressive mix of the sacramental and the mundane. This is so because Gordon Hinckley’s funeral was no exception to Mormonism’s general rule that families bury their dead. They design and execute the memorial program. They say the prayers and perform the ordinances that send their loved ones off to the next life. Yes, the chapel in this case was the LDS Conference center that held 21,000 mourners; the lay pastor who conducted the meeting was Thomas Monson, Hinckley’s presumptive successor as “prophet, seer, and revelator;” and the music was provided by the 300-plus Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But, in all other essentials, the service was performed by the family. A son gave the invocation. Monson conducted at the request of the family, he said, not by ecclesiastical right. Only one dignitary was mentioned as among the mourners: a representative of the American president. When his name was given, the camera’s briefest glance away from the pulpit to the audience gave the only hint of famous others.
The eulogy was given by a daughter who described her father’s life as half-way point in a now seven-generation story of sacrifice, death, and survival that is the Mormon saga. Explicitly gathering the millions watching into that story, she declared “we are one family sharing an inheritance of faith.” Friends with high titles spoke next. Though the requisite list of his ecclesiastical accomplishments was given, it was subordinated to his success as a courageous and amusing friend and a successful husband and father. Another daughter gave the benediction: “we are buoyed by the knowledge that we will see him again as family, as friends.”
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, 25 grandchildren and 62 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 church’s chief leaders, 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, the hierarchs were “dismissed,” as Monson put it. Finally, 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.