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.".
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.”
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.