Waking the Dead

This talk was first given in 2004 in the Cambridge First Ward.

In looking forward to Pioneer Day, I have chosen to speak about the influence of the dead on the living, the interconnections that exist between those who have gone before and those who continue to go. I have entitled my talk “Waking the Dead.” While part of me will admit that I’d rather be awake than dead, it’s a title I’ve chosen deliberately. Even those of us who are surrounded by death at work know from our professional experience that it is always someone else, somewhere else. Perhaps this constant safe exposure to mortality is why doctors are so full of themselves, but that is a story for another day.

Let me explain my reasons for this title. Wake refers to a ritual familiar enough to us that the word does not require special commentary in conversation but strange enough that most of us would be hard pressed to explain why it bears the name it does. The dead are, after all, quintessentially fast asleep.

Wakes have a long history. If we had to name them now I suspect we would call them all-night vigils, times of ritual wakefulness that extend through the night between death and burial. The wake is traditionally Irish, hence Finnegan and Ned Devine. Some have pushed to call it a viewing and keep the hours reasonable, and perhaps that name is okay. But I have chosen to focus on the idea of the wake. In Irish culture it is a time of drinking and mourning, celebrating and communing, a way to ensure that the dead leave under proper circumstances, a rejection of the notion that the death rattle, that agonal sigh of expiration, is all there is to our departure. No, the transition is marked with friends, libations, toasts, and love. The morbid among us whisper nervously that the real reason for the first wakes was to ensure that the patient was indeed dead, given the known difficulty of knowing that no other breath will be taken and the ease with which our anxiety and fear seem to animate the still chest.

Certainly, there were occasional individuals who stirred during their wakes, but such examples are peripheral, and attempts to attribute the ritual to them is like those who explain Kosher or the Word of Wisdom as primarily health codes. This approach saps religious ritual of its meaning, making it little more than a pseudo-medical practice. Wakes are more than oversight for an amateur coroner. Indeed, we engage in wakes in part because the dead are truly dead–waxy, pallid casts of the person we have known and loved. We wake the dead to remember that they are gone and to formalize our farewells, to give our grief a form that we can bear.

There is some evidence that the earliest cities’clusters of related households that would become Roman settlements’were based on a tomb, an ancestral sarcophagus beneath the hearth. The dead were forever with the living’guiding, sustaining, sometimes reproaching. From such cities grew larger groupings, eventually nations, such as this “land where our fathers died,” to borrow Samuel F. Smith’s phrase from “Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” We humans have forever been defined by mortality’our imminent decease and our ancestors’ known death.

Our prophet Joseph Smith knew death well. His beloved brother Alvin died as a result of medical malpractice when Joseph was a teenager just finding his prophetic path in the unending poverty of the American frontier. Many of us know Lucy Mack’s tender maternal reminisces of her lost son. She tells us that the entire family was struck speechless when the subject of Alvin was broached; she was almost willing to die just to end the misery of separation. Joseph saw his brother alive in the celestial kingdom in a revelation received around the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, perhaps the inaugural vision in the plan of vicarious ordinances and sealings that would make the Mormon family truly eternal. Less well known is the horrifying incident a year later when Joseph, Sr. (and we suspect Joseph, Jr., though we cannot be sure) were taunted into believing that Alvin’s body had been stolen by anatomists eager to dissect the by-now largely dissolved corpse. They were so shaken that they decided to exhume him, just to know his body was safe.

I have imagined again and again the horror Joseph must have felt on his knees, peeling back the coffin lid, half-expecting to find that his brother’s remains had deserted them, and finding instead the nauseating satisfaction of Alvin’s skeleton. Just a few years later, Joseph’s firstborn son, named Alvin in honor of his missing uncle, had congenital defects and died within hours of birth, a twisted, lifeless body to mock the impulse of life and the reverence for the dead. Our prophet has known deeply the irony that the corpse is a perverse bookmark, a reminder of the person now absent and an almost overwhelming shout of the misery of death. Joseph was slow to recover from these trials, his only small comfort the doctrines being revealed through him.

On a personal level, I remember now my grandfather, “Granddad,” “Howard,” “Professor Morris,” the laconic but brilliant biochemist who cringed at too-easy tears but loved his family passionately. I watched him die this spring, arriving at the hospital just as he “gave up the ghost.” Ruach, pneuma, the spirit, that gentle upswelling of the chest with each breath that remind us of our vitality. In that silent immobility, the echoes of life are swallowed up. Granddad was stiff and aloof when I dressed him for burial two days later. His limbs were as unforgiving as wood’when I held his hand there was only the blank reflection of a tree trunk, not his warm, steady grasp, that palm that cupped my shoulder when I was young. But by the time I had finished, he was dressed in the clothes of the temple that promise I will see him again.

When the dead have departed they leave only this wax statue of our beloved, so still it mocks our memory. When my father died during my first year of college, I said goodbye to him some days before the event and then was unable to afford a plane ticket home for the funeral. He remains in my memory in a strange purgatory, neither alive nor dead, and I wish now that I could have participated in his wake, to mark that transition of the spirit vacating the body, to know that he has moved on. Truly there are blessings in waking the dead.

Yet waking has another sense in culture and scripture. From the eager Den Leader at Cub Scout camp making the rounds of musty tents seconds after dawn, to the holy responsibility of prophets and prophetesses to awaken the slumbering sinful, we are called to awaken. Indeed that sacred prayer of the Hebrews, Shema Yisrael, bears the force of a wake-up call. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One God. Awaken from your spiritual slumber. Weary Lehi, consumed by the indifference of his fair-weather sons, calls to them to “awake from a deep sleep,” to “awake and arise from the dust.” Eager Nephi echoes those words in his so-called Psalm, calling to his soul to awaken, to “no longer droop in sin.” If we are to be saved, if we are to live meaningfully, we must remain awake.

The slumber of the dead is deep and alienating, separating us from them just as they are separated from their bodies. We tolerate this separation poorly. The dead fare little better. In the words of Joseph Smith’s nephew-prophet, the dead see “the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.” Through temple work we relive the rituals they died for, imagine creation, redemption, and eternity. For those who have slumbered in the darkness of ignorance, we bring light, inviting them through the portal of the temple, back among the living. As we perform ordinances on their behalf, we awaken them. We may have an even more direct role in awakening our deceased loved ones through resurrection as a priesthood ordinance, if we are to take Brigham Young’s speculation as church doctrine. But there is another immediate sense in which we wake the dead, best exemplified by the celebrations in Utah each July 24. The dead, their memories, images, stories, messages, are removed from the ethereal barrier we call the veil and are brought inescapably to our attention.

In this season of remembrance we see their sunwashed bonnets and cracked boots, their leather skin and resolute eyes. We see their lame oxen healed by the laying on of fissured hands, their births on the frozen ground of the Midwest, beside unmarked graves barely the size of a shoebox. I feel strongly that as we wake the dead, their presence in turn awakens us. Let me explain. Our awareness of the dead, through tradition, legacy, Pioneer stories, documents, diaries, scriptures, and in rare private moments even visitations or impressions, dreams and visions, the dead continue to participate in our lives. We are touched and strengthened by the story of Jedediah Grant who struggled back to his young daughter’s grave only to find it ransacked by wolves. We remember Zina Diantha Huntington who, with many others was asked to give up the deep satisfactions of monogamy and suffer the marital alienation of polygamy for the greater good of the kingdom. We remember the penniless Saints completing the Nauvoo Temple so that they could receive their endowments before fleeing the United States, working toward the end with posted guards to protect them from roving Anti-Mormon thugs. We see in our mind’s eye the tragicomic vision of Heber Kimball rising from a malarial delirium in his wagon to assure his wife that all was well as he left Nauvoo on a mission, barely able to stand.

But the Mormon Pioneers are not simply heroes for a time starved of heroes. Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, the Dalai Lama, Lowell Bennion are not so far gone. Gordon Hinckley is a wonderful man and our dear prophet and leader. Here in Boston we have the example of Paul Farmer and Jim Kim, devoted to lifting the lives and health of the poor from Roxbury to Siberia. On a simpler level, the daily struggle of countless Afghanis, Iraqis, Africans, Indians, and others for life ought to be equally inspirational to us if all we want are heroes. They are indeed heroes, and I thank God for sharing them with us. But the Mormon pioneers are more than heroes. They are our forbears, the ones who have enriched the soil of our lives, who have confirmed the majestic truth that the wind of spirit belongs inside the body and the resurrection will reunite the breath of life with flesh and bones. That these resurrected beings will know again those they have loved on earth. I should note that these Pioneers are the forbears of all Latter-day Saints, not only those who descend from 19th century Mormon stock. Through the binding power of Elijah, every member of the church is bound to the vast eternal human family. These Pioneers belong as much to the convert of five hours as to the Mormon of five generations. Smiths, Youngs, Fieldings, Hinckleys have no more claim on these ghosts than do the Garzas, the Chows, or the Marchenkos. They exist in and through all of us.

I hear too much about concerns for the weaknesses of the early Mormons, their foibles and missteps. These peccadilloes confirm that they were human. I am grateful to know them better and am not bothered by their hesitations and differences from me. They wore beards, drank coffee, didn’t go to church much, had aunts who were also wives. But now they are dead’watchfully, wakefully dead. Each moment of interaction I have with them places me more firmly in their debt and rooted in their soil, the earth that is sanctified by their remains. I am glad that they were human, as I am human, and I am their child, their heir.


NB: This talk refers in part to ideas found in Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead and primary documents published in Dan Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents series and Lavina Anderson’s redaction of Lucy’s Book, as well as the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. The talk reflects material from a work in progress, entitled Forever Family: Early Mormon Theologies of the Kindred Dead.


  1. Tanya Spackman says:

    Just want to say I love this. I’ve copied and saved it on my desktop to keep.

  2. Robert Curry says:

    Thanks for sharing this. What kind of reaction did this get from the Cambridge First Ward?

  3. re: 2. that was my community for many years, and we all understood each other. i can’t recall any negative feedback, though I didn’t do any polling or similar activities.

  4. Thanks for sending this in Sam. A fine post. While reading, I kept thinking of Zina’s mom Zina and her waiting up with a dead neighbor. She decided she would lay her hands on the body and quickened him, by faith.

  5. Man, I bet you could hear a pin drop when you gave this talk. Wonderful stuff.

    I was watching an old family video the other night that had my now deceased grandparents on it. I remember them frail and dying; it was nice to see them with life.

  6. Holy crap, Sam. That was good.

    And I miss Granddad. And I was 13 and liked imagining things when Dad died. At his viewing, this imaginary vision I kept having of him sitting up from the casket to fix his hair or tell a pun was terrifying to me. I watched him from a corner most of the viewing, bugged that people were interrupting me to give me their condolences. I didn’t want him to wake, not then anyway, so I had to watch him. Make sure he didn’t.

    And like you said, more than the heroics of the pioneers I like their humanness. I belong to them and they to me and there’s something about weakness coupled with willingness to still do something that makes me feel like I really do belong to them.

  7. rleonard says:

    I really liked the last half of the 2nd to last paragraph. Good good stuff. (and true)

  8. Marvelous, Sam, thank you. I thought at first it might be a little gimmicky—the play on “wake”—but I should have known better; you pulled it off perfectly.

    Your work-in-progress sounds like the Mormon answer to Phillippe Aries’ The Hour of Our Death. I’m looking forward to reading it!

  9. re: 8, thanks. aries was trying to get from medieval france to 20th century america, and he did so magisterially (it’s a great read for those who haven’t seen it–easier to digest in the form of the John’s HOpkins lectures he gave the 1970s than the full length book). i’m trying to get from 19th-century death to 19th-century Mormonism and vice versa, which i hope will be equally engaging though somewhat different from aries.

  10. Re: 2&3, Unlike Sam I did take a poll. It received unanimous approval.

    The part that has stuck with me the most since I first heard the talk is to think of Joseph Smith’s personal experiences with death, especially that of his brother and son. It adds a deeply personal aspect to Joseph’s revelations and religion-making.

  11. Your paragraph that begins with “when the dead” is right on.

    I especially enjoyed the last paragraph. I like anything that exposes our humanity and gives me hope.