Martha’s funeral

April 18, 2007 | 21 comments
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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.

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21 Responses to Martha’s funeral

  1. Chad S. on April 18, 2007 at 8:56 am

    Thanks, Wilfried

  2. Joyce on April 18, 2007 at 9:03 am

    What a great story, I have known some \’Marthas\’ myself. THanks for sharing a bit of her story and the inspiring example your branch was to the undertakers.

  3. Norbert on April 18, 2007 at 9:10 am

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece. It has reminded me so much of the great experiences I had as a missionary in Flanders, and reading the lyrics of God zij met u made me cry, especially thinking about some of the people I knew on my mission whom are now dead I am sure.

    The funeral reminded me so much of the Kortrijk branch in which I served: the row house, the livingroom/chapel, the little group of pioneers, brave and dedicated.

  4. Proud Daughter of Eve on April 18, 2007 at 10:50 am

    Your posts are always so moving.

  5. JM on April 18, 2007 at 11:07 am

    I can only imagine the undertaker looking and acting like Carel Struycken who played Lwaxana Troi’s servant, Mr. Homn, in the Star Trek: TNG series.

    Classic!

  6. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2007 at 11:10 am

    I don’t think Mormons should be *forced* to be cheerful at funerals. But if this wasn’t a wonderful funeral I’ll eat my hat. I look forward to meeting Martha and the other branch members here or in the great beyond.

  7. bbell on April 18, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Well written.

    So when is the book with your short stories being published?

    It would be a shame for you not to record these exp for posterity.

  8. manaen on April 18, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you, Wilfried. We had a taste of the undertaker’s experience at my mother’s funeral last summer — non-LDS members of my girl friend’s family were taken by the joy that was mixed with our grief in her funeral. One of her sons-in-law was particularly impressed with the high councilman’s review of the plan of salvation.

    For my own part, I wept frequently between her passing on Monday and Saturday’s funeral. Some of the time it was from grief at our separation but most of the time, I wept from feeling the Comforter help me bear my grief and from gratitude for how *kind* God was in letting me feel that consolation.

  9. Margaret Young on April 18, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Beautiful, Wilfried! Thank you!

  10. Edje on April 18, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    A beautiful life well told. Thanks.

  11. Mark N. on April 18, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Most of the best meetings I’ve been to at LDS buildings have been funerals. My wife and I agree: Mormon funerals are very uplifting, joyous occasions.

    Must have something to do with our understanding of the plan of salvation, or sumpin’ like that.

  12. Ardis Parshall on April 18, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Thank you, Wilfried. I went to a funeral yesterday, different from Martha’s in the sense that it was much larger, and for a lifelong Latter-day Saint with the full LDS social network woven into his life from the beginning. Yet, like Martha’s friends, he and we “exulted over the news that Joseph Smith received the priesthood,” and that assurance keeps us within the same “life of dedication” as Martha, when honors and ease have lured others away. The recognition that you and I and Martha and my friend share this knowledge and outlook and hope is why I love your stories so much. I never met Martha, but she is my sister and I understand her.

  13. Leslie on April 18, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Thank you. I truly enjoyed this story. It touched so many aspects of our faith.

  14. Marjorie Conder on April 18, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Thank you Ardis–
    I was hoping someone would comment on “yesterday’s funeral”. I’m feeling quite inarticulate but deeply touched by all I heard and observed. Your combining that experience with “Martha’s funeral” somehow created “one great whole.” Thank you.

  15. Wilfried on April 18, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you all for your kind words and uplifting thoughts.

    Norbert (4), the branch in Kortrijk is indeed one of those incredible mission places, in the heart of strong traditional Catholic country. I have the highest respect for those pioneers.

    Ardis (13) and Marjorie (15), if appropriate, tell us more about yesterday’s funeral.

  16. Ardis Parshall on April 18, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Some impressions of Davis Bitton’s funeral, without making this a news report: It was the familiar LDS funeral, with perhaps three times as many flowers as usual sent from distant friends who could not attend. We heard the obituary, and talks by family members, with historian James Allen speaking for Davis’s professional colleagues, and a sermon on the plan of salvation, and musical numbers presented by family members. The tenderest words were by a son who told of kneeling at the temple altar sometime after Davis and JoAn were married, being sealed as a family, and his thanking Davis for how well he loved their mother. For someone else with Davis’s accomplishments, the funeral could have been a recitation of publications and professional achievements and honors received.That was in the background — what most mattered was Davis’s family and faith, and there were several eloquent tributes to that. In its details, the service was very much about Davis; from a slightly broader perspective, it was about the gospel and all of us as the family of God. Like Martha’s funeral.

  17. Marjorie Conder on April 18, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Ardis has said exactly what I somehow wanted to say. She has captured the spirit of a most remarkable day. I would add that for me too the highlight was the son’s talk. Davis and JoAn have a blended family of 10 children, but it apparently has become a seamless whole. Coming from a blended family that tried, but did not succeed nearly as well, can doubly appreciate the remarkable leadership and goodwill all around that allowed it to happen for the extended Bitton family. Far beyond his scholarly achievements this great family is the greatest tribute to both Davis and JoAn.

  18. Wilfried on April 19, 2007 at 1:15 am

    Thank you for adding this to the comments, Ardis & Marjorie.

    Your words about family made me think. The accomplishment of Family in Mormon life is a dimension that can be achieved from various perspectives, from the “regular” family, to the blended and extended, and also in the intensity of togetherness in branches and wards when people are single. Martha was single but had made her small branch into a family. Of the thirty people attending her funeral, I remember only a fraction as married couples, perhaps two or three couples. But all were brothers and sisters in the truest sense, brought together by their conversion and their dedication to the Gospel. Like you said, Ardis, “all of us as the family of God”.

  19. ukann on April 20, 2007 at 3:53 am

    Thank you Wilfried for another moving vignette of early European LDS life. They so much remind me of the little branch I was baptised into when I was 14 years old, in the early 60′s in England. I came in on my own, from an abusive family background. How grateful I am for those members who adopted me as a daughter. We clung together as a family. I’m in a larger Ward now, though still only 100 attendance on a ‘good’ Sunday. Fortunately the sense of family is still there – we mourn and rejoice with each other as much as in a real family (though in my case – more).

  20. Wilfried on April 20, 2007 at 5:55 am

    Thank you, ukann! Always good to see you around here. Indeed, one must have been a member of these small branches, or a missionary in similar circumstances, to understand the charm and challenges of those primitive units. I presume one finds such now in countries where the Church is barely starting, in Africa, in former communist countries… Let’s cherish our memories !

  21. smb on April 21, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    I’m grateful for the two stories in this post.