Funeral Lessons from Emma Lou Thayne

Funeral Lessons from Emma Lou Thayne December 13, 2014

In the weeks before Emma Lou Thayne’s death I have been pondering how it was that an interaction with her felt so different from encounters with other people. In conversation, she was consummately present, loving, and curious. Her approach felt to me like this: “I know there is something really exceptional about you, and I can’t wait to ask you questions and listen to you until I find it. It won’t take long.”

This post has a devotional edge; funerals lead me in that direction. I came to know Emma Lou Thayne (1924—2014) because I study Mormon women’s history and she has shaped that history as a writer, a teacher, a member of the Young Women general board and the board of the Deseret News. I attended her funeral this afternoon as a historian, but also to learn how to cultivate this way she had of interacting with people. Here is what I heard.

In the opening prayer, Thayne’s son-in-law Edward Heath said she was able to see the best in us even when we could not see it ourselves. Then he said that she carried the light of Christ and drew us all to her. Lesson one: look for the best in people and try yourself to carry Christ’s light; I suspect the two processes interrelate.

Next, her granddaughter Grace Rich noted that Emma Lou (whom she knew as “Grandma Gray”) “made everyone feel included, worthy, and valued.” Rich reminded me of something I had read in Thayne’s spiritual autobiography The Place of Knowing (iUniverse 2011): for birthdays, Thayne took her grandchildren on a “spree.” A spree could mean a gift and dinner out with reminders on manners or days with Grandma at the cabin. Rich said gifts most often were tools to promote play in the wilderness, like pocketknives or new hiking boots. Rich imagined her Grandma now around a kitchen table, enjoying a loving reunion with her deceased parents and three brothers. Lesson two: include people, make them feel valued, and find occasions to celebrate.

June Nebeker recalled her friend’s behavior when she and Thayne were on a Russian cruise ship as part of a peace tour. Thayne, a national tennis champion and founding coach of the women’s tennis team at the University of Utah, nonchalantly signed up for an onboard ping pong tournament. She baffled her opponents, who found her behavior as foreign as her English. Nebeker remembered that Thayne did in the tournament what she did on the tennis court—she complimented her opponents. “Great shot,” she would cheerfully respond to a skilled move impossible for her to return. She won the tournament. Lesson three: resist the petty impulse to put others down, even when you face them in direct competition.

Megan Heath thanked her mother for teaching her faith in the goodness of people and faith that things will work out. Lesson four: have faith in goodness.

Dinny Trabert reiterated that her mother had a gift for connecting with people, “connecting her light to the light in others.” Trabert told how her mother would listen well to others’ stories, validating the tellers and learning from the events. Lesson five: draw out and listen to what people have to say.

Bishop David Buhler repeated Thayne’s words days before she died: “I am so grateful that I have congestive heart failure because I know how I am going to die. I won’t have to suffer as others do but will slip quietly away.” Buhler said she had indeed slipped quietly away. Her daughter Shelley Rich has lived with her during the past three months to care for her and said her mother was always finding things to celebrate, even when this formerly superior athlete couldn’t even wash her own hands without help. Lesson six: practice gratitude.

Elder Holland spoke at length about Thayne’s poetry and books, repeating a W. B. Yeats quotation they both loved: “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet” (“Earth, Fire and Water” from The Celtic Twilight). Thayne’s family had spoken about her love for her cabin and how necessary solitude was to her. But both Holland and Thayne associated that magical quiet with the light of Christ as well. Holland taught, “A real tribute to Emma Lou is to share her belief that Jesus is the Christ, the light, and the life of the world, and that she who will come unto Him will have eternal life.” Lesson seven: following Jesus made Emma Lou Thayne a person to whom others were drawn and by whom they were shown how to lead a truer life.

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