Sarah Jane Weaver: What helped me plan my father’s funeral amid coronavirus restrictions

Just as I was leaving the mortuary — where my mother selected flowers for my father’s casket — I received an official notice from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, “all Church gatherings, including public worship services and sacrament meetings,” had been suspended.

In a matter of minutes, the headline joined others on thechurchnews.com — “26 temples now closed worldwide,” “Changes to general conference, missionary work, stake conferences announced by the Church in response to coronavirus,” “Church announces guidelines for large gatherings at BYU.

My family, work and Church responsibilities seemed to collide as Church announcements continued to hit my phone with, what felt like, lightning speed.

For weeks, I had been writing about coronavirus and watching health updates.

Coronavirus had disrupted stake and ward meetings, temple worship and Church travel. It had changed the way I would cover general conference. And it will surely impact my college-age daughter — who had just met with her stake president to submit her mission papers.

Only now, however — just one day after my father had died at age 81 — did the reality of the situation hit me. Coronavirus would change the way my family and I would mourn our father and celebrate his life. Even if we could responsibly hold a public funeral, would anyone come? Would we want them to come? Should we ask family members to get on a plane and fly to Utah to pay their respects?

As we silently drove home, the thought of another time of uncertainty and conflict filled my mind.

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Two years after the first convert baptisms in Sierra Leone in June 1988, members began meeting as home groups in Bo. In August of 1990, a branch was organized in the city and members began meeting in rented buildings, according to a Church News article by Peter Evans, titled “A miracle came through obedience.” 

Then in  January 1991, the mission president received a letter from Church President Ezra Taft Benson. The prophet asked the Latter-day Saints in Bo to leave their meetinghouses and to gather again in their homes to worship.

While many were discouraged, a strong group of core members made the decision to obey. They closed their chapel doors and began holding worship services in their homes.

Sierra Leone Africa.
Sierra Leone Africa. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., James Dalrymple

In March 1991 — just more than a year after President Benson asked them to leave their rented meetinghouses — civil war erupted in Sierra Leone. In the midst of war, churches were frequently targeted; thousands lost their lives while worshipping God.

But Latter-day Saints in the country were safe from harm, worshipping in their homes in obedience to a prophet’s counsel, according to the article.

Mustafa Touray, the first branch president in the country, spoke of the miracle that came through obedience. “No member of the Church died in Bo during the war — not one. The [Church of Jesus Christ] was the only church that continued operating during the war in Bo — the only one. Every other church closed its doors. It was too dangerous for the people to walk to church and too dangerous to sit and worship. None of us [the Latter-day Saints] had any problem during the war. We worshipped through the whole war no matter how grave the situation was. Because we were obedient, our members received this great blessing.” 

Thinking of these faithful African members, I realized that — through obedience — fear and uncertainly can be replaced with peace and protection. My father would have been the first to insist our family look to the leaders of the Lord’s Church to guide us through this and other challenges.

Following the direction that all public Church meetings be suspended, my family proceeded with plans to hold a private funeral for our father.

Sunday, the same day we all would have been at Church one week ago, my mother and many of her children and grandchildren gathered at my sister’s home. We shared memories of our father and grandfather — reading excerpts from annual letters he wrote us each Christmas and his testimony of the Savior Jesus Christ. With permission from my sister’s bishop, family members who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood prepared and blessed the sacrament.

In one moment, the world that had been moving so fast slowed and then stopped. I listened to the prayers, partook of the sacrament emblems and remembered the Savior and His sacrifice. I remembered my father and his example, and I remembered my Heavenly Father — who sent His Only Begotten Son.

And then I felt a sweet confirming spirit.

I thought of the words shared with the Church by President Russell M. Nelson during this time of uncertainty. “My dear friends, our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ know us, love us, and are watching over us. Of that we can be certain.” I thought about the Saints in Sierra Leone whose obedience and home worship protected them in times of war. And I thought about my own family.

My father’s death was not untimely. He would have traded the biggest and grandest funeral for this — the opportunity for his family to remember him and Him as they quietly worshipped together.