I’ve attended many funerals in my life. Far too many, really. Before I’d reached my 13th birthday, I’d already attended the funerals of my father, my older brother, and three of my grandparents. Since then, I’ve been to countless other funerals. Some, like the services for my teenage cousin and the infant son of my childhood friend, were wrenching and somber. Others, like that of my 93-year-old friend and neighbor, Mildred Hunter, were sweet, deeply edifying, and almost joyous. The truth is, I have a real fondness for a good funeral. More than almost anything else, a good funeral makes me want to be a better person. There’s just something about celebrating a life well-lived that makes me want to stand a little taller, try a little harder, value life and my relationships a little more.
Yes, I’ve attended many funerals in my life, but, until today, I’d never attended the funeral of a prophet.
Having watched the televised memorials of church leaders in the past, I sort of knew what to expect. I knew it wouldn’t be a typical wardhouse event. Still, I was unprepared for the circling helicopters, the throngs of people, the roving cameras. We sat in the center section of the first terrace in the Conference Center, almost directly in front of the pulpit—the famous pulpit which was crafted from the wood of one of President Hinckley’s own trees, a sturdy black walnut. We watched on the auditorium’s two big screens as the televised procession made its way along South Temple. Once we saw that the cortege had arrived at the Conference Center, a feeling of hushed anticipation filled the hall. It wasn’t clear from the televised footage which entrance the funeral party would come through. I sat on the edge of my seat, my eyes flitting from screen to various possible entrances then back to the screen again. The thought flashed through my mind that those at home watching the narrated television coverage probably had a better idea at that point of what was happening than we in the audience did. Then, suddenly, like a gentle cresting wave, the audience began to rise to its feet.
I didn’t expect to cry at this service. I had shed my tears on Sunday, and thought I would only rejoice in the legacy of this great man at the funeral. But as the members of the Quorum of the Twelve entered and lined up along both sides of the corridor and the casket was rolled in, the spirit was palpable and the tears began to flow. It was deeply moving to see the Council of the Twelve standing at such reverent attention as the family members of President Hinckley filed in and took their seats. Even more moving was watching President Monson and President Eyring take their places on either side of that big empty red velvet chair on the podium.
As I watched the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of President Hinckley enter and take their seats, I felt bad for them for having to share their very private grief in such a public forum. Of course, all their lives they have had to share their dad and their grandpa with the church at large. I was glad that Elder Tingey later thanked them for that.
I was there with my entire family (minus our oldest daughter who is in the MTC preparing for service in the Ukraine Donetsk mission). Through a series of miracles which allowed my husband, a church employee, to procure four more tickets in addition to the two allotted him, and through some pretty fancy jockeying (of work schedules, piano festival slots, and various other commitments), we were able to work things out so that we could all attend. I was so proud of our four sons, ages 10, 14, 16, and 18, all dressed up on a Saturday in white shirts and ties, genuinely eager to be there. The prayer of my heart was that these boys—good boys, but restless, young, and easily distracted, both in meetings and in life—would be touched; that the spirit would speak to their souls and that their testimonies would be deepened and fortified.
It’s interesting how the spirit speaks to us so differently, so individually. My eyes were often wet during the service, but during one particular stretch that didn’t feel quite as emotionally or spiritually charged to me, I turned to whisper something to my 14-year-old son and was surprised to see that his eyes were filled with tears.
As Presiding Bishop, H. David Burton, talked about the texting phenomenon that had occurred last Sunday night when young people throughout the church instantaneously mobilized and, through a series of text messages, began sharing their love for their prophet and their grief at his passing and then came up with the plan to show their respect by wearing their Sunday best to school the next day, I thought how appropriate it was that the man who had always championed the use of the media and new technology to further the work of the Kingdom should be so eulogized.
Many of the speakers remarked on President Hinckley’s legacy—what Elder Tingey called, quoting Longfellow, his “footprints on the sands of time.” Often mentioned were his temple building efforts, his warm sense of humor, his commitment to education, his media savvy, his love of people, his plea for greater tolerance and less self-righteousness as a church. I thought about this last “footprint” as I read one of the quotes from President Hinckley that was printed on the back of the program:
I take this occasion to plead for a spirit of tolerance and neighborliness, of friendship and love toward those of other faiths.
And then I thought about the message I found on my answering machine when I returned home after running some errands last Monday morning. It was from our neighbor down the street who is an active member of the First Baptist church. “I wanted to call and tell you how sorry I am to hear about the loss of your president,” she said. “And I was wondering if it would be okay if I brought dinner over tonight.”
President Hinckley’s legacy.
The service ended with a magnificent rendition of “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with harp, oboe, and flute. As the music swelled, images of the prophet, smiling, waving his cane, greeting members across the world, walking beside his beloved Marjorie, appeared on the big screens. That’s when most of the congregation really lost it. My 16-year-old told me later: “I made it through the whole thing without crying, but when they showed those pictures and I remembered how he had always been there and that he wouldn’t be there anymore, it was like a fountain had opened up in me.”
Our youngest son, age 10, sobbed openly and his 18-year-old brother put an arm around him and pulled him close. As the services concluded, the 10-year-old turned to me, tears streaming down his face, and said: “Thank you so much for bringing me. At first I thought this would be no big deal, but it’s such an honor to be here.”
Yes, son. It was, indeed, an honor to be there.