We talk of sacred space. Spaces become sacred to us for various reasons, like dedicatory prayer, or usage over time. Home is often writ large as sacred in Mormon narrative, but in our transient modern existence, we have no stable places of residence. The narrative is often morphed by sayings like “home is where the heart is,” an especially popular one with the advent of the restless wandering of the twentieth-century.
Joseph Smith preached a Zion where stability extended through life to death and then resurrection. The Mormons never found that kind of stability while Joseph lived, though he hoped it lay in Nauvoo and to-be-established centers of Mormonism in the US and elsewhere.
Joseph’s vision of resurrection moved the already sacred space of burial to another level. He saw burial as strategic—a way to guarantee joy on resurrection morning. His announcement of the nature of resurrection made it seem that fortuitous laying to rest near one’s family and closest friends was a most desirable thing, and left public requests to the effect that he wished to be buried near his own family group with father, mother, etc.
His own requests had an effect on the young church. For a time, those who died in service far from home saw their remains transported to the “center stake” to lie dormant until the moment when they could rise and “strike hands” with their fellows in the cause of Christ, and smiling, watch as long dead wives, husbands, children, parents would fall into joyful aching arms.
Modern existence seems to work against such visions of affectionate closeness. Our lives move us thousands of miles from parents, siblings, children and friends. And that distance works to weaken bonds, separate lives and move life orbits beyond those familiar sharing intersections of childhood and youth.
Before the vistas of travel opened, families grew, spread, joined, and rejoined in a kind of human petri dish of expansion (real life of course is never as pleasantly unruffled as memory and fiction make it–but go with me here). The burial plot was a family exercise or in a nearby church. Americans were especially good at breaking the paradigm. Antebellum times were expansive, wandering, opportunistic times. No wonder individualistic religions like Methodism prospered in that environment. In a sense, despite its forced-march migrations, Mormonism worked against this. Sealings of husband and wife, parents and children didn’t just stamp “permanent” on loving connections, it drew people into loving community, a personalized earthly Zion.
Planning for death is not a pleasant prospect and the ethic of common burial is mostly gone from modern life. Our jobs, marriages and other circumstances drive us far afield and we often see lives of family members end thousands of miles apart. These days, there is even talk of such separations becoming interplanetary. The needs of existence conspire to drive thick and fixed wedges of between us. I fear the advantages Joseph saw in physical proximity, even in death, now begin to escape our consciousness. Social media and “facetime” not withstanding, I think the ties that bind are thinning and we don’t, and perhaps can’t, recognize it.