Written in Stone: Some Thoughts on Mormon Grave Symbology

When my husband and I were making up our living wills, we were faced with some hard questions about life and death as well as whom we would want to be the guardians of our children. Because we still like to think that we’re young and immortal, we didn’t get into making any funeral plans, but I did have one request for him — please don’t sing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” at anytime during my funeral. It is just too sad.

Other than that, I haven’t made too many plans for when I cross the bar. However, lately I have become intrigued by Mormon grave markers. Because I live far from the centre stakes of Zion, I had never seen a headstone with an LDS symbol on it.

According to Val Brinkerhoff, “During the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints significant usage of visual symbols was employed upon temples and general architecture, as well as on coins and grave markers, in an effort to convey basic but important beliefs. Early church leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young readily embraced them as a way to communicate gospel truths quickly and effectively to converts from many different backgrounds. In their minds, employing a unique new LDS symbology provided a way to unite the Saints, while doctrinally separating them from traditional Christian faiths. The symbologist F.L. Brink suggested that the Prophet Joseph Smith created an "…innovative and intricate symbology that suited well the psychic needs of his followers.".

Some of the motifs found on nineteenth century LDS grave markers are clasped hands, single right hands pointing heavenward, doves, lambs and wheat sheaves. Gravemarker1_1

Brinkerhoff goes on to say that, “Today the usage of symbols by the Latter-Day Saints is greatly reduced, especially in everyday life. Much of modern LDS architecture seems sterile in comparison to their 19th century counterparts. Yet LDS symbols remain, in subtle fashion, evoking important concepts for those who can read this somewhat lost ancient language.” Handssingle2

Starting about 1910, gravestones that featured an engraving of the Salt Lake Temple became popular for a short time.  However, it was not until the 1960’s and the advent of new engraving technology and latex stencils that "temple gravestones" became more widespread. According to Folklorist Carol Edison, "Today commercially produced double gravestones featuring a temple as a central symbol more and more frequently mark the graves of faithful Latter-day Saint couples. Over the last 25 years, without any particular institutional sanction, these temple gravestones have become increasingly popular.  Their distribution … is an important indicator of cultural boundaries.  Yet it is their unauthorized development, acceptance and use that make them both a folklore expression of organizational affiliation and religious beliefs and a particularly rich source of information about contemporary Mormon culture."

It is not surprising that the temple remains a central image on LDS grave markers.  A friend recently told me that her family chose to have an image of the Cardston Temple engraved on her father’s headstone.  However, the public presentation of symbols has certainly changed over time. The sun seems to have set on the all-seeing eyes and clasped hands that were so prevalent earlier in this dispensation. Which makes me wonder what other motifs we might see in the future on LDS headstones — a big CTR symbol or perhaps a Nauvoo sunstone? Or maybe we will just abandon the public display of most symbols altogether, as witnessed by our more sterile modern temple architecture.  Instead of continuing the practice of writing historic and communal messages of religious identification in stone, Latter-day Saints might just break completely with the traditions of the past and embrace an individualistic new grave technology which will allow us to simply bear our own testimonies "in person" from the great beyond.

Comments

  1. As for songs…I’ve always hoped to hear “Oh When the Saints, Go marching in…”

  2. Floyd the Wonderdog says:

    The clasped hands are not unique to LDS headstones. I’ve seen several with this in Michigan.

    I put this quote on my son’s headstone:

    But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ.
    – Book of Mormon, Mosiah 16:8.

    This allows those pausing to read the stone to see that Mormons believe in Christ and the resurrection.

  3. ..and spent a little time poking around some of the old cemetaries looking for striking 19th century Mormon grave stones.

    The funny thing is that I think that that is pretty cool…we’re all dorks. Thanks for the info on the military issue grave stones.

  4. mjpritchett says:

    Using the Nauvoo sunstone on a grave stone would bring the sunstone full circle since its design is apparently based on the style and method of carving on New England grave stones.

  5. Nate — The Dialogue article talks about how the angel Moroni was officially chosen by the Church for use by the United States military as the official symbol of the Church. It is interesting to note, that in spite of this institutional sanction, that members are far more likely to choose a temple image — she estimates 25-30% of gravestone orders from monument companies in SLC (1985). It would be interesting to see if this has changed over the past 20 years.

  6. Thanks for the note Justin. For those interested, here is a link to McAllister’s grave

    http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cgi-bin/viewer.exe?CISOROOT=/RelEd&CISOPTR=5681&CISORESTMP=&CISOVIEWTMP=

    and one for Brigham Young’s grave:

    http://jfs.saintswithouthalos.org/images/cityvsts/bygrave.htm

    J. — I love that monument! Unfortunately, when I was in that part of the world, I wasted my time going here instead:

    http://www.hiptravelguide.com/paris/article-27.html

  7. Is it just me, or is the hand coming up a little too evocative of the cliche of the zombie hand coming out of the ground in horror films? LOL

  8. I spent a couple of months in SLC studying for the bar right after law school, and spent a little time poking around some of the old cemetaries looking for striking 19th century Mormon grave stones. What I found interesting is that some time in the last decade or two, the U.S. Government began issuing headstones for deceased LDS servicemen with an Angle Moroni. Thus, you can get those white, Arlington-cemetary looking stones with crosses, stars of david, etc. and an Angle. I was told by one worker in the cemetary that there are actually two different versions of Moroni on government issued tombstones, one for Mormons and one for Mormon fundamentalists, but I’ve no idea if this is actually true.

  9. Err, I didn’t mean to type “Ezra Taft Benson” twice. I intended to write “Howard W. Hunter.”

    Kris, I like the angel Moroni idea.

    On a related note, I’ve noticed that J.D.T. McAllister’s modern (i.e., it was obviously done in recent years using modern technology) grave marker features designs of the St. George and Manti temples to represent his service as president of both temples. Perhaps the new marker illustrates how we read and interpret the past through the lens of modern culture. I’d be interested to learn the design of McAllister’s original marker.

  10. I remeber walking through the endless rows of white graves at Verdun. Of course, the bulk are adorned with the cross, but there were not an insignificant number with the star of David or the crecent. I wondered what I would want…probably the cross.

    Since seeing it in person, I have alwys liked Jules Verne’s grave. I love the Catholic focus on the resureciton of the flesh.

    I totally dig the pointing finger, I think I will go with that.

  11. In my experience, the hymns/music that are chosen for a funeral can make for a very positive and memorable difference. Until now I haven’t given much thought to the manner in which LDS people decorate tombstones. I enjoyed the addition of pictures to this post. This is a very interesting topic.

  12. Excellent post, Kris. The Brinkerhoff link is great. I agree with you about “God Be With You.”

    I’ve seen photographs of the graves of some recent leaders, such as Bruce R. McConkie, Hugh B. Brown, Ezra Taft Benson, Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson. They are very plain (little design beyond flowers). The marker for N. Eldon Tanner and his wife features some flowers and praying hands.

    I don’t suppose that our increased emphasis over the past two decades on the Book of Mormon has manifested itself on grave markers. I’ve seen designs that included two books, but there is little to suggest that the books are meant to represent the Bible and the Book of Mormon. An angel Moroni and gold plates would be more distinctive.

    I don’t know if any markers have ever featured the Relief Society or Young Women logos. The Primary program has a few symbols left: Sunbeam and CTR. The increasing use of the temple image is in keeping with President Hunter’s encouragement that we “establish the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of [our] membership.”

    I’ve thought about the use of the Deseret Alphabet on my grave marker. But that may be a bit obscure.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Great post, Kris — glad you could figure out the images!

    Any speculation as to the meaning of the hand pointing heavenward?

  14. Danithew — I think you are right about the music at funerals. I have only been to 3 LDS funerals; one was for a baby who only lived a few hours, one was a very tragic and shocking suicide and the other was for a 94 year old grandmother of a friend. Perhaps, my difficulty lies in my association of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” with those two very sad funerals, although I always cry when we sing it if someone is moving out of our ward too. It is kind of interesting to think what songs I would pick for my own funeral (perhaps I am just morbid :)

    Justin, I think that it is very interesting, and perhaps telling, that modern church leaders have very plain tombstones. If my memory serves me correctly, the graves of Joseph, Hyrum and Emma in Nauvoo are also quite stark. I know there are grave markers that have both the Bible and the Book of Mormon on them, but don’t know of any that just have the Book of Mormon. I guess the beehive could also be a distinctive motif on a grave marker, although I think they have been used more on buildings, flags, etc.

    Personally, I am leaning towards a reproduction of the original horizontal angel Moroni on the Nauvoo temple.

    Steve — Thanks for trying not to enable me, but I finally had to call Jonathan in to help with the pictures, but I think I have it now! (Thanks, J!)

    This is what Brinkerhoff has to say on single right hands:

    The right hand is typically used to show support in LDS congregations via a ‘vote’. The hand points up to heaven, the right arm to the square, symbolizing honor and integrity. The hand and arm witness to all present that the person will be uphelp in their new calling by the one voting, by showing the sign of the square when asked. On gravemarkers, single right hands are often found pointing heavenward.

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