Monday, May 18, 2009

The Death of Immediate Family Members and LDS Missionaries

When I was a missionary thirty-four years ago in the Toronto Canada Mission I was on a missionary exchange with a zone leader who told me of his regret that he could not attend his brother's funeral who had died during his mission. Apparently the brother died in a car accident. My missionary friend felt that it might give him some closure if he could have attended. I questioned him as to why he didn't go home for his brother's funeral. He told me that his parents felt that he should stay in the mission field and that his brother would have wanted him to not lose the time on his mission. Out of respect for his brother and parents he decided after consultation with our mission president to stay in the field. I sensed at the time that the elder never really had the closure he wanted since his brother's death was still causing him some psychic concerns. At our age I could relate since he wondered if he had been at home if he could have saved him from the accident that had claimed his young life.

The LDS Church's official policy is to discourage missionaries from going home even for a few days to attend the funeral of parents or siblings. I guess that is to minimize possible disruptions to the work and possible problems of the missionary getting in trouble or returning.

Even in the New Testament Jesus Christ is talking to a possible follower who wants to join him in his ministry and tells the man to not worry about attending his father's funeral but just to join the cause and not look back.

In Matthew 8 we read:

18 ¶ Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side.
19 And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will afollow thee whithersoever thou goest.
20 And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
21 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, asuffer me first to go and bury my father.
22 But Jesus said unto him, aFollow me; and let the bdead bury their dead.
I guess some would think Jesus Christ himself to be unfeeling of the psychological condition of a disciple. Jesus point is that we have to give up everything to join the cause. Mormon missionaries are asked the same thing today.

Several former Mormons take exception to the LDS missionary policy that a missionary continue in the missionary work and not go home for funerals of immediate family members. They criticize the mission president and authorities as being heartless and greedy. Even Jesus Christ himself had the practice of continuing in the work of spreading the gospel while sacrificing all as a policy for discipleship. The expectation is that the missionary will forsake girl friends and families to give their time and talents to the building of the kingdom for the time during a mission.

On occasion the LDS Church has made a handful of exceptions if the disruption is minimal. It is entirely up to the mission president in consultation with the missionary and his or her parents to decide whether a missionary can go home for a funeral. I have seen a handful of cases over the years where a missionary went home for a few days and came immediately back. The mission president has some discretion if the missionary is not far geographically from home to let him or her attend the funeral. For the most part they prefer that the missionary stay in the field but every now and then there are factors that make their going home possible. Each case requires approval from Salt Lake City from the Missionary Executive Committee if the missionary wants to go home and come back. In addition if approval is given, a missionary and his family would be required to pay the full expense for transportation home and back to the field. Some parents aren't able to afford for a missionary to come home and it would put a strain on their budgets. When a missionary is in a foreign country it is more disruptive to the missionary work and less likely that they will be allowed to go home since it could take weeks.

Most families don't want to disrupt the missionary work and know that holding up a funeral is not always possible for more than a day or two since the body is decaying rapidly. Active LDS parents usually would discourage a missionary from coming home since part of the reason they are on missions is to teach of the plan of salvation. Even non-member families know that their child is engaged in an important work. Funerals could drag out if there are things like estates to be probated. I remember when my grandmother died we had to spend a few extra days visiting with lawyers.

The missionary I knew back on my mission even though he felt it would be nice to attend the funeral told me that it motivated him to work harder on his mission since his brother could serve a mission vicariously through him. He thought about his brother often and felt a regret his brother would not experience a mission. But he was serving his mission for both of them.

Personally I don't have any feelings one way or another about whether missionaries should go home for immediate family members funerals. I think it is situational and should be done in a prayerful way for the best of the work and the persons involved. When I served a mission I knew that was a condition of being a missionary that I stay in the field. Closure doesn't always come by attending a funeral. For me it would have been counter-productive, at that point in my life I didn't have a good relationship with my father due to his life choices and would have probably not gone had he died. My own brother never made peace with my father and he had forty years to do it in, not nineteen or twenty-one years, like young proselyting elders or sisters. Sometimes there is greater psychic damage in attending than not attending.

I think each death involves an individual decision by a missionary to choose to attend or not attend after consultation with leaders. For the most part missionaries and their families want to be obedient to the policy of staying in the field. I think the cases of missionaries going home is rare. I think all the factors should be weighed before granting or asking for exception to the rule. I am sure there are times when it is for the greater good to attend a funeral like in the case of non-members. I do know that every rule has some exceptions and that the LDS general authorities are not as heartless as ex-Mos make them out to being. Even a few mission presidents and their wives attend funerals for deceased immediate family. I think the leaders take in to account the missionary and the circumstances.

1 comment:

Ian said...

This is a tough one.

When I was on my mission, in a ward I was serving in, a woman in the ward died suddenly. She had an aneurysm while doing a ward service project and died a merely hours later. Her and her husband had two sons on missions. Neither on of their sons came home to the funeral, but they both called home and talked for a few hours, and they were allowed to call each other. I think they actually had a conference call.

Being a missionary, it really hit home, and I did a lot of thinking as to what I would do in the same situation.