When Martha died, I had to arrange the funeral.
“A joyful exit, she had asked, and have the children sing.”
I went to see the undertaker whom the hospice had already contacted. He welcomed me, his voice slow and deep:
– May I first express my deepest condolences at the passing away of your beloved mother.
– Thank you, but she is not my mother. I happen to lead the Mormon branch here in the city. Martha was single, no close kin. As a member of our Church, she wanted a Mormon funeral.
– Be assured our establishment will provide the most satisfactory service in this distressing time for your community.
He hesitated, his head tilting sideward to an apprehensive posture:
– We nearly always do Catholic funerals, we have done a few Jewish ones, and also a Protestant, years ago. But I must admit we have never been involved in a Mormon funeral.
– I haven’t either. It’s the first of our members to die since I joined the church myself. I got the instructions, and it’s all very simple. We do it in our building, it’s like a regular Mormon service, with hymns, talks, an opening and closing prayer. Then we drive to the cemetery, where one of our people will dedicate the grave.
The undertaker listened with solemn lips and worrisome eyes.
– I will need more details for the ritual. Then I’ll work out the script for our pallbearers.
I promised to give him a copy of the program.
He asked about the choice of the obituary letter.
– Our most used format is this one, grey underground, very sober, with the cross in the upper left corner.
– No crosses, no. We Mormons don’t use the cross.
He looked sad.
– We have a model with a just a tiny little cross, stylized, in the bottom right corner.
– We really need one without a cross.
He looked even sadder.
– Then it’s the format for agnostics: dying autumn leaves, winter tree in the fog, or withered rose.
– I don’t think Martha would have liked any of those.
We settled on a format without preprint. I gave him the text Martha had chosen, to put in a frame on the letter: “Ye shall have fullness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fullness of joy.”
The mortician nodded, with thoughtful politeness.
The funeral went well.
Of course we had to arrange for some last minute changes. The undertaker had placed a heavy black shroud over the trestles on which the coffin had to rest. We tried to replace it with white cloth used for the sacrament table, but the pieces were not large enough. A member, who lived closed by, went to get bed sheets. The undertaker, panicking in the most dignified way, arranged the sheets in nice undulations.
The six pallbearers, veteran employees, brought in the coffin. Dressed similarly in dark grey, they marched in slow, uniform steps, dragging one foot next to the other. Then they paused a second, their bodies and faces motionless, their eyes fixed towards an empty eternity.
On our crumbling harmonium, pumping vigorously with her feet, sister Janssens started to play High on the mountain top.
My first counselor opened the meeting.
– We are so happy Martha could make it one more time to the chapel.
A cheerful approving murmur arose from the audience — some thirty pioneer members crammed in the living room. We relived the weekly Sunday image: Martha jumping from her huge black bicycle and entering our old rowhouse as if it were a palace, beaming faith and friendship.
Our five primary children sang, at first timidly, then with growing gusto, Ik ben een kind van God. They had made a large drawing for Martha, showing her in the gondola of a hot air balloon rising in the sky to the spirit world, where dozens of people were waiting for her with outstretched hands.
The celebrated story was told of Martha’s conversion thanks to her cat who had climbed high in her front yard tree and didn’t dare to come down and then two missionaries happened to pass by and they organized the rescue which ended with the fire department liberating one of the missionaries from the tree. We had heard it so many times and still laughed.
All the joy Martha had brought to the branch was rekindled around her coffin.
We promised we would never forget her stentorian voice, which still seemed to resonate in our chapel, this simple room where each month she had given her passionate testimony of the Restoration, before her first stroke put her in the hospice. The second had now brought her back for this blissful farewell.
I pondered about her and our audience, Mormon pioneer converts in our day and age in Flanders. These had been devoted Catholics or staunch socialists, imbedded since birth in a maze of cultural rituals, which had forged their identity and their kinship. Then, upon the word of two foreign twenty-year olds, stirred by a Spirit unknown, they embraced the message that in 1820 a young American farmboy spoke with God the Father and Jesus Christ in a far-away place called Palmyra, New York. They exulted over the news that Joseph Smith received the priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist and of Peter, James and John, and that he brought forth that miracle called the Book of Mormon. They humbly accepted baptism, including the breach with their past, upbringing, environment. They stepped into a life of dedication to De Kerk van Jezus Christus van de Heiligen der Laatste Dagen, even the Kingdom of God on earth — meaning a small, struggling branch, to build into a ward over several decades. Such converts, worldwide, keep extending the marvel.
Our American mission president, who had come all the way from Bussum in Holland, gave the closing talk. In battered and inspired Dutch, he painted the simple story of Martha as a spirit daughter of God in the Great Council in Heaven, sent to this earth to partake in pleasure and pain, embrace the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, next to continue on her journey towards exaltation as queen and priestess. Now, he said, she is meeting with her parents, grand-parents, and other grateful ancestors for whom she has done the work, chatting in the sitting room of a celestial mansion and making plans for all the things eternity can be filled with.
Then we sang God be with you till we meet again.
God zij met u tot u wederzien
Dat Zijn vaderhand u leidde
Bij zijn kudde u veilig weidde,
God zij met u tot u wederzien.
After all was over, the undertaker came to greet me, smiling, relaxed.
– A remarkable experience, he said. Very enjoyable! I hope I can bury some more Mormons in the future.