The recent issue of BYU Studies contains a paper written by my co-blogger Jonathan Stapley regarding the Relief Society’s burial services the early 1900′s. The paper addresses a decline in Relief Society burial preparations, and largely attributes this decline to the Relief Society’s inability to compete with professional burial service providers. I think this is reasonable, but found it somewhat incomplete when I looked at the data. In particular, I was curious about the speed of the decline in burial preparations over time, and wondered if there might be more to the story than an inability to provide equally good burial services. In any case, it seemed like an excellent opportunity for rampant speculation.
The data used by Stapley in his paper reflects the impact on death and burials that the 1918 influenza outbreak had: the population shrank and burials spiked dramatically. Notably, prior to 1918, the number of RS burials per 100 members was increasing each year–some apparent evidence that the RS was actually gaining ground in the battle against gentile funeral home operators. However, the subsequent years demonstrate that 1918 was something of a last hurrah for RS burial services, as the popularity seemingly declines rapidly. Why?
I think it’s possible that one-time, catastrophic events like 1918′s influenza can fundamentally alter patterns of religious behavior in a community, even if no teachings or beliefs are altered at all. The church is a volunteer organization, dependent on donations of time and money and skill from its membership. As such, it’s plausible that the influenza outbreak during 1918 destroyed the Relief Society’s burial services: in an ironic twist, the surge in demand for burial services simply overwhelmed the resource-constrained Relief Society, and effectively forced people to use professional care instead. Once that barrier was breached, it’s easy to see how a once-despised market became instantly viable, visible, and popular.
In the Church and other areas of life, we often do things the way we do for no other reason than that, at some point in the past, we adopted a practice or belief consistent with our resources at the time, and simply haven’t had a compelling reason to change. When a disaster takes place that exposes the limitations of those resources, we scramble to find ways of ensuring that we’re not exposed again–like turning to professional funeral services. Thus, an overdrawn budget may simply force changes in religious behavior, regardless of religious beliefs or preferences.
The current economic difficulties for many members of the Church presents an excellent opportunity to test this idea. In time past, there are many traditionally conservative Mormons who would strongly prefer to not rely on the public dole during financial hardships. Similarly, despite my youth, I have known many Bishops who, being of this same political persuasion, would consider sending those in their stewardship to the County Food Stamp Office an act of religious treason. In short, my experience has been that, other things equal, we don’t prefer counseling members to flee to the government for welfare assistance.
However, during the past couple of years, I’ve been told multiple times in various Ward and Stake meetings that the chest of fast offerings is empty, or running on fumes. Not surprisingly then, I’ve also seen an unprecedented level of support for sending welfare cases to local government/charity programs. Indeed, an individual in my own ward was recently called as a Public Services Specialist, with a specific charge to become familiar with, and disseminate information about, all of the publicly available services in the area.
Sending members of the Church to the local Welfare Offices in 2011 corresponds to the RS President telling you to dig your own grave in 1918 because she’s already swamped. However, what remains to be seen is what will happen in 2012 and beyond. The permanent shift away from Relief Society burial preparations after 1918 suggests that either a) the professional services offered something of value that earned repeat customers, or b) local Relief Society leaders, wary of the previous year’s strain, unofficially became less accommodating generally, or c) both.
What are the possible implications for Church welfare? This could portend a shift away from Church assistance in favor of public welfare programs, and the reason is fairly simple: People who are referred to public welfare programs after previously going to the Church will make a few startling discoveries. First, they can go back again without going through the Church–there is no requirement of an interview with a Bishop, or a detailed analysis of needs (in many cases). Second, it’s cash/food stamps, not food–that means a greater degree of freedom in terms of food choices, stores, and timing. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is less likely that a person would experience complex feelings of guilt or shame that can easily accompany mixing our spiritual lives with our financial lives.
If I am super gloomy and doomy, it is possible that this shift would then have it’s own negative impact on Church welfare programs: Fewer users could translate into decreased appreciation (or “testimony” if you will) for the Church welfare program generally, leading to a decrease in donations, and starting the cycle all over again.
Alternatively, it is possible that the economic mess that we’re mired in will not change anything permanently, or at least not noticeably. However, the theory underlying the post is more general: Sometimes changes in our patterns of religious behavior may not be a function of changes in our religious beliefs as much as they are a function of changes in resource constraints and tipping points.
 Not only does a spike in deaths benefit existing professional service providers, but the surge in demand also likely attracted additional providers to the industry, further accelerating the growth of the market. Simultaneously, the existing RS would be experiencing shortages of labor as its own death rate rose.
 To say nothing of members of the Church (like me!) who exhibit a strong preference for condemning those who do rely on the dole!
 To say nothing of the countless men I’ve heard say, “Well, if I was Bishop…”
 The requirements for public welfare and charity-funded services vary widely. While my observation of certain programs match the description above, another friend indicated to me that the requirements are often quite stringent and, for lack of a better term, anal-retentive. YMMV.
 This is not to say that I think these outcomes are desirable. As suggested in Footnote 2 above, I am BCC’s resident government-welfare-hater.