Late last night, I came across a passage in which someone I once knew, a person who was once (to all appearances, anyway) an active and committed Latter-day Saint but who is now long and very vocally out of the Church, observes (with no evident demurral) that the word Mormon often evokes thoughts of bigotry, exclusion, narrowness, and sectarianism. Latter-day Saints are seen — and, here, he quotes the late John Gardner’s 1982 novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts, in which they are described as a “sea of drab faces” — as dutiful and robotic, thoughtless, dull, moving meekly and obediently across an endless murky plain.
I don’t doubt that, for more than a few outsiders, that’s exactly how we’re viewed. But it’s dramatically foreign to my own experience as a Latter-day Saint and among Latter-day Saints, and it saddens me to see someone who once fellowshipped with the Saints apparently buy into that image.
This morning, my wife and I attended the funeral for Mary Mickelsen Hall, whom we came to know during the exciting years when her husband, Brent, was the dedicated and idealistic office manager at the old Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), the forerunner of what is now known as the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, and during the time that I served as one of his counselors in a BYU campus ward. (That her maiden name is essentially the same as that in the title of John Gardner’s novel is pure but not unfortunate coincidence.)
I hope that Brent and his family won’t mind that I share some notes from Mary’s funeral.
The funeral of a genuinely good person who has led a good life — and Mary was such a person if ever there was one — can be one of the best meetings that we will ever experience in this world. And it’s no contradiction in terms to say that this was an exceedingly good funeral.
That it would be so was apparent from the very invocation, when a son-in-law, speaking emotionally and referring to the Savior, remarked appreciatively of Mary Hall that “we learned so much of him through her.” Thereafter, the music was unusually good, and all of the talks were moving and well-delivered. But the fundamental reason for the pleasure, if you will, of being there at the funeral wasn’t really in the excellence of the program. It was in the quality of the life and of the person who was being honored.
The famously salty-tongued Elder J. Golden Kimball (1853-1938) is said to have commented once, about the eulogies that he had delivered over the years at numerous funerals, that he had “given many a man a ticket to the celestial glory that [he] knew damned well wouldn’t get him more than half way there.”
I myself have sat in more than one funeral where, while I was pleased to know that the deceased had had some good qualities of which I hadn’t previously heard, I also knew from personal acquaintance that the dear departed soul wasn’t quite the stained-glass model of holiness and perfect rectitude being portrayed in the funeral talks.
This was emphatically not the case with Mary. “To know Mary,” said a daughter-in-law, “is to love Mary, and to know Mary is to be loved by Mary.”
That was not an exaggeration.
For ten years — but especially over the past two of those years — Mary suffered the ravages of a terrible disease that eventually deprived her almost completely of her memory and of her capacity to move and to speak. And yet, remarkably, amid all the suffering and the indignities to which she was subjected, she could still say two things: “Thank you” and “It’s nobody’s fault.”
How completely characteristic of her!
In the service this morning, one of Mary’s daughters told of visiting with her in the hospital three years ago, when her ultimately fatal disease had taken a severe turn for the worse:
A social worker came into the hospital room and asked her a number of simple questions such as “What is your name?” and “Are you married?” You might think that they would be simple questions, and Mary knew that she should know the answers. But she didn’t. And, as her inability to recall even such basic things became painfully apparent to her, she started to panic and grow upset and, when the social worker had gone, she began to sob.
Fortunately, her daughter felt inspired to ask her, “Mom, what do you remember?” Mary thought, and then responded: “I am a child of God,” she said. “And you love me.”
What could be more fundamental, more important to know, than those two things?
Latter-day Saints are human. We have our limitations and our weaknesses. We don’t always live up to our aspirations. Our communities aren’t perfect. Nevertheless, I close with three passages of scripture that convey the reality of life in a faithful Latter-day Saint community far more adequately than do the jaundiced comments, above, with which I opened this entry:
Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection. And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them. (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45-46)
And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it. (Mosiah 2:41)
And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you? (Mosiah 18:8-10)