This post is by Heather B. About a week ago, I had to explain death to my four year old. It was one of those conversations that every parent hopes to put off for as long as possible, and made a little more complicated by the circumstances.
My sister-in-law died suddenly in an accident, which led to hospital visits and wakes and lots of teary grown ups. While my nieces and nephews were told that their aunt had gone to be with a Heavenly Father, to be a missionary in the beyond, and have her own eternal family there, I struggled with the right words for my son. We don’t attend church, we don’t believe in a god, or a heaven. I settled on how much we loved his aunt, and how sometimes people go away forever, but we can still love and miss them, and remember all the wonderful things they brought to our lives. He seemed ok with that.
We braced ourselves for the Mormon funeral. My husband comes from background as TBM as it gets. His father leads their stake, his siblings all graduated from BYU, he and all of his brothers served honorable missions, and everyone who is married, was also sealed in the temple.
Thankfully, most of our fears were not realized. My husband was able to speak at his sister’s funeral, and stood at the podium and sang a song for her, one of her favorites, by Kermit the Frog. He spoke with honestly I probably would not have been able to muster in a room full of believers, of how he had no hopes of seeing his sister in a next life, but was so glad he knew her in this one, and shared the lessons she had taught him about empathy, and patience and longsuffering. It was in stark contrast from what his siblings shared, but it was what was in his heart. He and I stood up with his family and sang Amazing Grace as part of the program, not because we believe what our sister believed, but because we loved her, and respected her wishes.
Don’t get me wrong, there were guilt inducing talks by presidency members imploring listeners to come back so that they would never have to be sad over death. I won’t lie; I grimaced from my seat once or twice. But my overall impression of the event was one of awe.
The next day we planted a tree for our sister in her parent’s backyard, and read a poem, and all of the family took turns shoveling dirt and sharing stories.
In the worst of times, families either come together, or fall apart. My in-laws and I have had our differences since my husband I left the church. Harsh words have been spoken on both sides, feelings have been hurt, and grudges have been held. I would not have been shocked if we had not been allowed to speak at her service, for fear of what we might say. Instead we were loved, and supported in a time of grief, and allowed to honor her in the ways that brought us peace. The local bishop did nothing more than to ask if there was anything he could do for us, and no one used this time as a ‘missionary opportunity’.
That is the kind of church that I want my extended family to belong to: A church of inclusion and love, no matter what our specific beliefs dictate. For the first time in a many years, I can believe that maybe the LDS church is moving in that direction. I think that this may be the greatest legacy that my sister-in-law left for me.
Interesting. I just made a comment on Andrew’s “Mythbusters” post in response to Jeff Spector, who referred to Atheism as “the religion of nothing matters and we have no reason to be here,” that someone needed to write a post that represents the Atheist point of view, since no group on the belief-nonbelief spectrum seems to be more misunderstood than Atheists.
For the record, you don’t say whether you align yourself with the term “Atheist,” but you do say you don’t believe in God or an afterlife.
As for me, I probably misunderstand Atheists as well. My difficulty with understanding Atheists is the same difficulty I have with understanding Believers, it’s in believing something that can’t be known. How can one know if God doesn’t exist, or if an afterlife doesn’t exist, or if we are going to see our deceased friends/family again? If my own four-year-old daughter were to ask me a question about death, I couldn’t give her a definitive answer (i.e. “that sometimes people go away forever”).
So if my daughter asked about whether she would see a departed family member again, I think I would tell her something along the lines of, “I don’t know… some people think so, others don’t… maybe, maybe not… that will have to be something you figure out for yourself… either way, it is important to live this life to the fullest, making every minute count, because this life will end someday…” and then say something along the lines of cherishing our living family and friends, as well as the memories of those who have past, etc.
So, nice post. Like you, I’ve attended a couple LDS funerals lately and pondered the eternal nature of the remarks from the podium, and the likely difference of opinion I have from those around me in the audience.
And I love “The Rainbow Connection.” Wonderful song.
Dear Heather, I’m so sorry for yours and your family’s loss.
I’m glad your extended family is moving along a positive trajectory, despite the occasional rough patches. As the exodus continues, your family’s composition — now mixed between practicing and non-practicing Mormons — becomes more the rule than the exception.
There were rough spots and frayed feelings when my sister and I became the first members of our large, extended Mormon family to openly cease attending LDS church, 20 years ago. (My mother is 6th generation LDS; she and her 9 younger brothers all served LDS missions.)
My strategy for keeping the family together was to emphasize a “family first” policy. One of the ways I’ve put family first is to emphasize the good aspects of our shared heritage, such as interest in family history.
When I helped organize our family reunion a few years ago, I compiled surveys from all (then-68) members of the extended family, along with histories of each branch and of ancestors into a 306 page book, which I self-published and gave to my family members. That’s a little extreme and you certainly don’t have to go that far. In another example, when my grandparents (both still practicing LDS) visited, my partner Mike and I took them to the town where I was born and visited and photographed all the houses my grandfather built when he was a contractor in the 1950s and 60s. At this point, I think I can make a good case that I’m more engaged than any of my cousins in our shared heritage, regardless of whether they are practicing or not.
In other words, even though we have mutually contradictory world-views, we can still honor our shared interests and respect each other as individuals. Right now it sounds like your family is still fairly new to this transition and so it’s especially difficult.
Over the past 20 years, the number of non-practicing Mormons in my extended family has ballooned to a majority of the cousins. But the family has stayed on good terms by putting family where it belongs, ahead of church.
Thanks, your sister’s blog sent me to:
Glad the funeral went as well as one can go. As Miss Manners says, “people need to remember that weddings are for fighting at, not funerals.”
I’m sorry to hear about your family’s loss. And I am happy to hear that this time you felt you received love with less conditions attached (or hopefully no conditions). I think one thing we can all do better is develop and exhibit true unconditional love, rather than having an “I love you as long as you agree with my specific theological ideology” approach.
I’m probably closer to an Athiest than an Agnostic, but I’m not a very hard line one. I’d love to tell my kids that some people believe X and others believe Y, but I doubt my son’s ability to understand that concept at this point, so we just went with what seemed simplest. They are exposed to my husband’s families mormonism, and my families christianity, and so I’m sure we will be having lots of those discussions down the line. It’s not so much that I’m certain that there is no god, as much as that I’m certain that it really doesn’t matter much to me at this point in my life. Religion works for some people, I’m sure of it, but the mental gymnastics it would take for me to believe at this point seem much more difficult than the prospect of believing I’m on my own.
We are the first of my husband’s family to leave, but his parents were adult converts, so our far extended family are actually really supportive. It has been fun building relationships with them. My husbands family has come a long way and slowly have begun to realize that we are basically the same people as always, and didn’t become herion addicts in a gutter just because we left the church. We still love each other, we still have great kids, and we still want to be a part of the family. Hopefully years from now it will be even better. 🙂
We just went through a similar experience, altho in this case it was my mother-in-law and it was her time. A different point of view than Heather: My wife and I and our children are TBMs (and I don’t mean that in blind following the blind sense that some seem to attach to the term!). My sister in law is the first in several generations to actually leave the church. She left to be “born again” and has a relationship with Christ that seems to benefit her and make her a better person. Others on both sides have “left” they just haven’t gone anywhere else (inactive). She worried about participating in the funeral, speaking of one whom tho she loved dearly, she considered “lost” and what the reaction of the family would be. She was somewhat surprised to find everyone from the Stake President to the visiting teachers accepting and kind to her and no mention made of difference of religion. Our kids are older and seemed satisified with the belief that we’ll be reunited in the hereafter (and no, I’m not an authority on just how that will happen). Mostly with her we just agree to disagree and have a standing bet on who will be right. We’re both apparently sure enough in our own faith and patient enough to last this life out to see who’s right!
I’ve attended several mixed funerals during my lifetime and have never had a bad experience with the services themselves, either from congregation or leaders. Sometimes, I understand it can be different, but surprisingly enough, here in small town rural predominately LDS Utah, I have not encountered it.
How can one know if God doesn’t exist, or if an afterlife doesn’t exist, or if we are going to see our deceased friends/family again?
Most atheists I know, including me, aren’t dogmatic about the non-existence of God and afterlife. It’s a practical knowledge, in the same way that I’m pretty sure I don’t have any rich uncles. I see no evidence, so I don’t fret about it. I may really, really wish at times that I had a rich uncle, and there’s a tiny chance that my extended family is keeping a big secret from me, but for the most part, it just doesn’t factor into my reality, my planning, or my expectations.
You’d be surprised at just how well atheists and agnostics get by.
I’m sorry about your sister-in-law’s death. I’m glad that your husband was able to mourn publicly for his sister–it’s downright cruel when an organization keeps family members from participating in these healing social rituals.
I wrote about one way that atheists can talk to children about death on my blog a couple of weeks ago. I know from experience that it’s not an easy thing to do.
One more thought: I had a bonding moment with my born-again, fundamentalist, Pentecostal sister-in-law recently when we spontaneously broke into the Rainbow Connection (at some forgotten prompt). It’s a lovely song.
Beautiful post. Thanks for being here.
I am very sorry about your loss.
However, with all due respect, I am very confused as to why you are blogging on a Mormon Matters website when you don’t believe in God or the afterlife or in any of our principles. What would be the purpose of sharing your current belief structure in such an environment? Wouldn’t a more appropriate venue be an agnostic or atheistic blog?
Let me also echo my sympathies to you and your family.
I have alays found LDS funerals to be very hopeful and uplifting services because of our beliefs in the eternal connection of souls and familes. This contrasted greatly from my experiences of my family’s Jewish funerals, which tended to be very sad affairs because of the “when you are dead, you are dead and gone forever” message. I never liked that.
I can understand your feelings, so I’ll try to explain. I’m here because even though I’m no longer LDS, I have many loved ones who are members of the church. These friends and family are important to me, and I think that building bridges between the Mormon community and those who have left is an important thing.
Whether I like it or not, I will always have a little bit of Mormonism in my life because of my LDS friends and family. It’s in my best interest to find common ground with them, and also to try to help those who are willing to listen understand the point of view of those like me. We can all choose to attempt civil discourse, or we can shut our eyes and ears and pretend that the other side doesn’t exist. I choose the former.
— From the mission statement of this blog: “Mormon Matters is an exploration and celebration of Mormon culture from all sides of the ideological spectrum” — “all sides” includes former believers. Here we define Mormonism broadly…as a culture/heritage…and we have invited moderate Mormons, liberal Mormons, conservative Mormons, fundamentalist Mormons, and (yes) inactive or even former Mormons to participate. Other faiths like Judaism and Catholicism are big/mature enough to acknowledge that “active” belief/membership is only one component of belonging to a heritage and culture. Would you challenge a Jew’s heritage if they were not currently attending synagogue, or if they no longer believed in the genocides of the Old Testament? Would you challenge a Catholic’s right to call themselves Catholic, or to fellowship with other devout Catholics, if they no longer attended mass regularly, or did not believe that the Pope was infallible?
— Heather is here because I invited her, and because we (as members of the blog) warmly accept her.
I don’t mean to be angry or contentious….but I hope this clarifies things for you.
Thank you for your response. I was not raised LDS. My cultural upbringing was Catholic. As the only LDS member in my family, I understand the need to maintain relations with the family but I sometimes do not understand the great need I see in former LDS to maintain the cultural connection and to talk about it so much. I do not have the same need as regards my Catholic upbringing. I respect it, I honor it, but I do not speak of it much. It is just an interesting observation I have noticed in LDS culture.
P.S. Michael — glad to learn a bit more about you. I imagine that you could teach me a thing or two about Catholics, eh? 😉
I understand your approach to Mormonism as you have been very consistent over the past two years in how you approach its definition. However, just to clarify, I do find it very perplexing and, in my humble opinion, kind of sad, when a former Jew or former Catholic still clings to a culture they no longer believe in. I do not consider it a sign of a “mature” faith at all. Religion is not a culture or a heritage, it is a belief system. If you no longer utilize that belief then you need to move on. Your culture or heritage is your ancestry or your current nationality or your race, not your religion.
As defined by Wikipedia, heritage is as follows:
“Heritage refers to something which is inherited from one’s ancestors. It has several different senses, including:
Cultural heritage, a nation’s historic monuments, museum collections, etc.
Natural heritage, a nation’s fauna and flora, natural resources, and landscape
Tradition, customs and practices inherited from ancestors
Virtual Heritage, an ICT work dealing with cultural heritage
Inheritance of physical goods after the death of an individual
Biological inheritance of physical characteristics
Birthright, something inherited due to the place, time, or circumstances of someone’s birth
Industrial Heritage, the monuments from the industrial culture.”
Culture is defined as the following:
“Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate,”) generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. Different definitions of “culture” reflect different theoretical bases for understanding, or criteria for evaluating, human activity.
Culture is manifested in music, literature, painting and sculpture, theater and film and other things. Although some people identify culture in terms of consumption and consumer goods (as in high culture, low culture, folk culture, or popular culture), anthropologists understand “culture” to refer not only to consumption goods, but to the general processes which produce such goods and give them meaning, and to the social relationships and practices in which such objects and processes become embedded. For them, culture thus includes technology, art, science, as well as moral systems.
Anthropologists most commonly use the term “culture” to refer to the universal human capacity to classify, codify and communicate their experiences symbolically. This capacity has long been taken as a defining feature of the humans. However, primatologists have identified aspects of culture among humankind’s closest relatives in the animal kingdom. As a rule, archaeologists focus on material culture (the material remains of human activity), whereas social anthropologists focus on social interactions, statuses and institutions, and cultural anthropologists focus on norms and values. This division of labor reflects the different conditions under which different anthropologists have worked, and the practical need to focus research. It does not necessarily reflect a theory of culture that conceptually distinguishes between the material, the social, and the normative, nor does it reflect three competing theories of culture.”
As you can see from the above, religion is not a component of either culture or heritage but it can be influenced by it.
If you sincerely believe that religion is not a dramatically important component of culture and heritage — well, I don’t know what to say. Influence or component — I’m not sure what the meaningful distinction is.
What I’d like to see is “believing” Mormons become a bit more mature and confident in their faith — such that they welcome all (believers or not) into the discussion.
Mormonism is a culture — as well as a series of denominations (numbering in the hundreds, as I understand it) — in my way of looking at things, anyway.
John Hamer — who is gay, was raised devoutly Mormon, but who is no longer an official member of ANY restoration branch — is as Mormon as they come (in my opinion).
As is Anne Wilde — a polygamist, fundamentalist Mormon.
As is Jeffrey Needle — a Jew, who happens to love all things Mormons.
As I read the New Testament — I also do not see that Jesus found such distinctions as you make important — at least when it came to who he would “commune” with.
I understand where you are coming from, because I used to share your point of view.
Can you see mine?
For me personally, it’s not so much clinging to culture as finding a way to understand where those I love are coming from.
For example, we live very close to my husband’s family. His father is a stake president and the church effects literally every day of their lives. I have lost count of the number of times we have rescheduled kids birthday parties around LDS events, had missionaries pop up for family dinners, had family events turn into testimony meetings, ect.
Because our extended family is so involved in their beliefs, it effects our relationship with them. I have to explain to my kids in the best way possible things like the temple, blessings, baptisms, and long family prayers. I have to find a way to see things from their point of view so I don’t get overly frustrated myself.
I have found it is easier for me to be understanding of these types of situations if I take the time to stay up to date on what is happening in the world of Mormonism, and to have an open discourse with those within the church who are willing to do so.
I know some people will see this as another exmo who left the church but can’t leave it alone, but my experience has been that the only way to truly ‘leave the church alone’ would be to cut a lot of people out of my life, and the lives of my kids, and I’m not willing to do that.
Dear John and Heather,
I appreciate the thoughtful and kind responses. I can understand the approach and how it impacts your lives. For me, it is just something that I have a hard time accepting. I think that is because my journey does not require me to do the same with my Catholic “heritage”. While I still attend mass whenever mom visits and I fly home for all my nieces and nephews Holy Communions, I don’t feel the need to revisit or continually stay connected to that part of me. I have accepted the new path and don’t see the need to stay attached other than maintaining my family relations.
Thanks for sharing with me.
I always try not to over-intellectualize things which have a lot of feeling and emotion associated with it. One’s identifying with a cultural is a heart-felt thing, not neccesarily a brain oriented thing. I can speak for myself here.
Being raised in a Jewish home, there are a significant amount of cultural things that have nothing to do with religion or doctrine. These things are still a significant part of my life. Some of them are:
-The food! Lox, bagels, chicken soup, flanken, brisket – all manna from heaven.
-Yiddish – I am majorly in love with the language. Oy Yeh!
-Tradition! – placing a stone on the grave of an ancestor as a rememberance that I was there, celebrating Passover, Hanukah
I don’t see anything wrong with that. As Heather stated, it helps me relate to my extended family better. While I don’t embrace much of the doctrine of the Jewish faith any longer, there are many parts that are totally in sync with my LDS beliefs. And my Jewish perspective makes much more sense to me in some instances than the traditional Christian view of things.
Anyone who doesn’t think that there is a strong Mormon cultural that transcends doctrine (especially in Utah), well, Oh my heck, they are not paying attention.
“presidency members imploring listeners to come back so that they would never have to be sad over death.”
Is this suggesting that if one is Mormon they really don’t have to grieve anymore? That doesn’t make sense. Grieving is a healthy part of death.
Michael–as I never have been a Catholic, I can’t really say much, but I do think that the Mormon community is quite a bit stronger (if that’s even the right word). Actually, a friend of mine, who is a convert to Catholicism, suggested as much to me.
I agree with Heather that a lot of people can’t leave it alone because it is so entrenched in the lives of everyone else in the family.
No problem. In my opinion, there’s no reason why you should emphasize the Catholic part of your life any more than you do. If you chose to explore it, I’m sure you’d find that your upbringing & heritage informs who you are in interesting ways that make your experience as a Catholic-raised Mormon distinct from Mormons “born in the covenant.” I find Catholicism quite interesting myself. I’m rather well read on medieval Catholic history (my graduate work was in medieval European history), and I’ve taken about 8 years of Latin over time which has included an emphasis on reading church writers in the original. But the world is full of interesting things; and if that’s not one that interests you, I’m sure you have others that you find much more compelling.
As for me, I’m not involved with Mormon culture because I need to be or because I feel a need to be involved or because I “can’t let it go” or “leave it alone.” I’m involved because I want to be. I’m involved because it interests me. And I’m involved because I have found a great community of friends across the spectrum of the Latter Day Saint cultural community.
The strength of the Mormon approach to death is that its not a “goodbye”, just a “goodbye for now”. Other faiths may see things like that in some sense, but there is a lot of confidence in it amongst Mormons.
I think Mormonism might be the hardest faith to completely walk away from, at least in developed nations. We are extremely evangelistic, believing that other people need to convert for their eternal spiritual welfare. Thus, Mormonism won’t leave the leavers alone. Families of ex-mormons, regardless of how they treat them, don’t stop worrying about their spiritual welfare, and I mean in a serious way like you worry about the health of a friend with diabetes. As Heather has shared, even if they are cool to you, knowing they feel that way has an effect.
Also, Mormonism’s culture is really white Utahn/Idahoan culture. It gets spread around the world by young missionaries, and the public speaking styles of general authorities. The way we talk, fake swear words, inside jokes, how we dress. Its what makes Napolean Dynamite a mormon movie without a single reference to religion.
I remember a friend telling me that on his mission to Japan, they tried teaching Halloween to the members.
Is that in the scriptures? 🙂
Ha ha–we did that too. 🙂 Well, actually the members there (in Japan) requested it. All this despite Elder Oaks telling us to stop spreading Mormon culture on the mission (specifically places like Africa where the cultures are ostensibly vastly different. He said “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. That’s it.”
After reading your comments, Michael, it struck me–I think that so many Mormons feel that when you leave Mormonism, you completely cut yourself off from it, because joining Mormonism often demands a complete rejection from one’s former life. I know it’s more complicated than that, but when I joined the Church, I was disowned and I deliberately cut myself off from many of my former practices, beliefs, and social groups. Many members feel that Mormonism should be one big package deal, and this is the source of much friction within cross-Mormon dialog. For former members, post-Mormons, cultural Mormons, and many others, there is a strong sense that one can pick and choose the aspects of Mormon identity that are the most meaningful to them.
As for me, I don’t think I could completely escape Mormonism even if I tried (and believe me, I’ve tried!) I have too many good friends and family members in the church, and if it’s important to them, it makes it important to me. Also, half of my life was spent in the Church, and I can’t just black out that entire experience. And put me together with some RMs and the stories just start flowing.
At any rate, kudos to Heather, Michael, John Dehlin and others for this respectful discussion across the spectrum. I feel both welcome and interested in this dialog, and that’s saying something.
Heather…thanks for the post. It was really moving and really lovely to hear. I concur with your conclusion and hope that the church can be more accepting of people from all walks of life.
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