When someone dies in a local ward many families turn to the bishop and or Relief Society president for direction and organization. In this episode I interview Greg Ballard, who is a former bishop and has had 20+ years of experience as a funeral director in Salt Lake City, Utah. We discuss some best practices of conducting and facilitating funerals.
To get the most out of what Greg Ballard discusses it is recommended that you listen to the attached episode in its entirety, but here is a brief summary of the big take-aways:
1. Read the handbook
This should come as no surprise to any leader. The handbook discusses simple policies that will help guide a leader to have a successful funeral program and one that is in harmony with the spirit of the gospel. This information can be found in Handbook 2, 18.6 and Handbook 1, 17.2.2
2. Create a Funeral Committee
The bishop or Relief Society president should not attempt to plan and organize the funeral proceedings by themselves. The funeral experience creates high emotions for the family of the decedent and the funeral experience should be a positive experience for them. Any sign of disorganization or mismanagement can cause frustration with the family.
Having a funeral committee of ward members that can help plan the program, prepare the building, assist in dressing the decedent (if needed), and organize the family luncheon. Because theft of the family home is common since funeral details are often published in local newspapers, it is a good idea to have members of the funeral committee monitor the family home so that the home doesn’t remain empty and vulnerable to theft.
Funeral committees are not only for wards with a higher level of funerals. Any ward could assign individuals to a funeral committee that are trained and ready to help when a ward member passes away.
3. Be ready to recommend a funeral home to the family
Many families will not have prearrangements in place for their recently deceased loved one. They most likely will look to the bishop for suggestions and recommendations of a funeral home to use. The bishop or Relief Society president might find it helpful to get familiar with the local funeral homes in the area so that they can confidently suggest one for the family to consider. The leader can assure the family that any funeral home is ready to take their loved one into their care 24-hour a day. They are just a phone call away, ready to serve.
4. Be prepared to educate non-LDS funeral directors
LDS leaders living in Utah have the luxury of dealing with funeral directors that most likely have an LDS background or are at least familiar with LDS customs. These funeral directors will easily guide certain details while respecting the customs of LDS funerals. However, if you live in an area where the funeral director is not familiar with LDS customs, it would be nice to have the local bishop or Relief Society president make sure the funeral director is educated on these customs and offer help where needed.
5. It’s not required that the family dress the decedent
Some family members might feel obligated to dress the decedent. It is not required that family members dress the body. If the decedent was temple endowed and the funeral home is not familiar with the dressing, this is another area where the ward funeral committee can be helpful.
6. Be ready to conduct a funeral with cremated remains
When I served as a bishop, a member of my ward passed away and was cremated. At the funeral I found myself a little unprepared with certain details, like how the urn would be displayed during the services. Thankfully the family was patient with me as I discussed with them how they felt most comfortable with displaying the urn. They ended up not even bringing the urn to the chapel.
A funeral with cremated remains presents new questions to consider before the funeral. It is one more thing to discuss with the family that will lead to a memorable funeral.
7. Set expectations with the family before they meet with the funeral director
Setting expectation with family members of the decedent is key during the entire process of funeral planning. The sooner the bishop can set expectation with the family the least likely it will be that the family will experience disappointment. By setting general expectation with the family before they meet with the funeral director will avoid issues and result in a funeral that is withing the policies of the Church Handbooks.
8. Look for alternatives if you disapprove with program details
It’s going to happen. There will be a moment when the bishop, as the presiding authority, disagrees with a detail on the program. It might be tempting to tell the family no and move on even if they are hurt by the bishop’s direction. However, before you say no, look for alternatives to their requests. For example, if the family really wants to have a medley of Beatles music played during the funeral service, maybe suggest this happen during the family luncheon.
9. Review welfare principles if fast offering funds are needed to pay for funeral services
Some families are not prepared financially to pay for a funeral. Fast offering funds are an option for paying for a funeral. Just like any Church welfare request, be ready to apply welfare principles that safe guard the use of these sacred funds while also respecting the wishing of the family. In this case it might be best for the bishop to work directly with the funeral director on the details of what is being paid. This is another place to seek for alternatives to keep the families happy.
10. Anticipate strained family relationships
Funerals are a wonderful time for family members to get together, but that doesn’t mean everyone likes each other. It might be beneficial for the leader to get familiar with who is coming to the funeral and ask if there are any members of the family that might try to cause trouble because of past disputes. Most likely not, but again, the presiding authority should anticipate anything that could cause a negative funeral experience.
11. Be ready to give closing remarks
It’s very common for the presiding authority to offer closing remarks. Even though the presiding authority gets the final call of who is on the program, it is a nice gesture to ask permission from the family to give closing remarks.
A few resources written by apostles to help you prepare closing remarks are:
The Gateway We Call Death, By Russell M. Nelson
Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not, By M. Russell Ballard
What is this list missing? I am sure many leaders reading this have additional tips that would help other leaders during the funeral planning process. Please share your tips in the comments below.