In a month that saw dramatic equalizing of women and men in Latter-day Saint temple rituals, the faith’s top leaders have announced one more move: Pulling a veil over a faithful Mormon woman’s face as her casket is closed is no longer required.
No similar tradition exists for men in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Veiling the faces of deceased, ‘endowed’ [members who have been through a temple ceremony] women prior to burial is optional,” church President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring, wrote in a Jan. 24 letter to Latter-day Saint leaders. “This may be done if the sister expressed such a desire while she was living. In cases where the wishes of the deceased sister on this matter are not known, her family should be consulted.”
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins declined Monday to “elaborate beyond the statement from the First Presidency.”
The veil announcement parallels changes made in the temple ceremony itself. Before this year, at some point in the rites, women were expected to cover their faces with a veil. That was eliminated in the latest alterations.
To Kristine Haglund, former editor of “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought,” the burial move seems “uncontroversial.”
“Veils have a complicated history in both ancient Jewish and Christian history, but most of that history is unknown or inaccessible to most Mormons, and there is little specific Mormon teaching about the purpose or symbolism of women's veiling,” the Boston-based editor wrote in an email. “For many Mormon women, the donning of the veil is experienced as an unexplained and arbitrary custom, and some find it distressing to have their face — the thing that most marks them as individuals — hidden, particularly since there is no similar aspect of the ritual for men.”
Haglund added: “Honoring the individuality of women who have died seems as important as allowing living women to be fully and individually present in the temple rituals.”
It’s good news for all members, said Ross Trewhella, a lay Latter-day Saint bishop in England. “Caring for the body of the deceased is always a tender and sensitive subject. Giving people dignity in death is important, and this change now affords adult women more of that by giving them a choice of whether they are veiled or not."
Instructions, still listed on the church’s website, say that “the body of the veil may be softly draped on the pillow at the back of the head until time to close the casket, at which time it is drawn over the face by someone who is approved by the bishop.”
It is unclear when the tradition of covering a woman’s face before burial began within Mormonism.
Jonathan Stapley, author of “The Power of Godliness,” has found multiple documents in the 1880s describing the “veiling." But the Bellevue, Wash., author, who has written extensively about Latter-day Saint worship practices, said it is likely to have begun much earlier.
“While we have records of burying the dead in temple robes, beginning with the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, precise details aren’t always given,” Stapley said. “It is very likely that the practice was in place earlier — if not from the beginning.”
For her part, historian Ardis Parshall, finds a kind of sweetness in the veiling ritual.
Ever since Parshall’s grandmother died, Parshall has anticipated that one day she would be putting the cloth over her own mother’s face. She views it as “a very positive thing,” the Salt Lake City-based writer said, “and the very last service I could do for her.”
To Parshall, “veiling is like completing a shroud.”
Given the new standards, the option remains available for those who want it.