Dedicating the Dying

Back in the olden days it wasn’t uncommon to gather around the dying and laying hands on them dedicate them to the Lord, a signifier that they had lived their life to the appointed time and could pass beyond the veil confident in their heavenly place. We still commonly dedicate a lot of things: graves, homes, temples, missions, etc. Those have all moved from the folk liturgy to the formal, or started there to begin with. The dedication of the dying, however, has not.

It seems to me that stories of priesthood holders administering to the sick and being inspired with prescience of the afflicted’s demise are somewhat common. Levi Peterson once described a different type of interaction with the ritual in the final moments of his mother’s life:

My brother-in-law Marion knelt beside her and dedicated her to God. Shortly the paramedics arrived and performed their grisly rite of resuscitation. Luckily my mother was beyond them. Perhaps my brother-in-law’s prayer had put her there. The dedication of the dying to God is a folk ritual among the Mormons. It is often practiced but not officially defined. Probably the prayer of dedication is more important to the healthy than to the dying. A fervent ritual can domesticate even death, the ultimate terror. I for one took comfort in the fact my brother-in-law had sent forth this emigrant from mortality, our mother, with a heartfelt wish to do her good.

And of course, this is all just a way to ask if you are familiar with similar modern examples.

Comments

  1. I find this fascinating, Jonathan. Since our family lost three loved ones last year, we certainly witnessed or participated in blessings. All of the blessings were for healing–except the final ones given to my father-in-law, who, we were told, could not survive the failing of his organs. Blessings pronounced on his head were for comfort. I wonder if our separation from death (use of mortuaries rather than front rooms; hospitals rather than bedrooms; hope in medicine rather than resignation to the apparently inevitable) has led us to ask almost exclusively for healing rather than to face death directly and perform the dedications you describe.

  2. That is really quite interesting, Margaret. I’m actually writing a paper on the practice and I have primarily focused on the early accounts during a time when death was much more proximate and sensate. Still, I think a lot of the reasons people did it a 150 years ago are similar in many respects to the way in which it is manifest today. Your comment about hope in medicine is the giant contrast of course. Perhaps we have finally adopted the heroic therapies (at least in attitude) that our people forsook at the dawn of the restoration.

  3. Somewhere I’ve read recently and will try to dredge up for you a response of a church leader (if I could remember who, I’d know where to look), to a question about “dedicating the dying unto the Lord.” He remonstrated against it as an imitation priesthood ordinance, a false practice that had crept into the church the he was determined to stamp out. Have you run into that attitude in your research?

    The most “modern” related event I’m aware of in my family history is December 1922 when a great-uncle who had had very minor surgery became septic. My great-grandmother kept insisting that the Elders bless him to be healed, which they did, but he was in such pain and so out of his mind that he actually pulled some of his teeth out with his bare fingers. Great-grandmother finally couldn’t stand witnessing his pain any longer, and, the story goes, she asked the elders to “dedicate her son unto the Lord,” and he immediately calmed down and passed away peacefully.

    This was in Manti, Utah, in a family that had been converted in Alabama in 1895 and emigrated to Utah in 1919. The son was 32, married, father of four living children, and his mother’s oldest child.

  4. J,

    About 8 years ago, as my mother was in her last days, my wife and I made the trek from Washington to Utah to visit her in the rest home. My brothers, our wives, my Dad, and I all sat and talked with her for a while, then we left her room, discussed her situation for a few minutes, and then gathered in a circle outside the rest home where we had at least a little privacy. I can’t remember which of us said the prayer, but we thanked God for her life and the many blessings she had given us, and then essentially dedicated her to the Lord, knowing it was all out of our hands. I can’t remember the exact words, but “commend her spirit to Thee” rings familiar. I remember going back in, and knowing that it would be the last time I saw her in mortality, and so did she. A little different than a blessing by laying on of hands, but essentially the same feelings and sentiments. With my wife and my brothers’ wives there, the prayer had the feeling of a regular prayer circle in the temple. It’s a very special memory to me.

  5. Ardis that is a poignant account. I don’t think I have read anything as emphatic as “imitation priesthood,” the the First Presidency issued a letter against the practice 1922. In some ways, the letter is surprising because there were so many of the Church leaders that had participated in the ritual, included Heber J. Grant. I’ll see if there was something I missed, though.

    Kevin, that is also a poignant story. I appreciate you sharing it.

  6. Last Lemming says:

    Somewhere I’ve read recently and will try to dredge up for you a response of a church leader (if I could remember who, I’d know where to look), to a question about “dedicating the dying unto the Lord.” He remonstrated against it as an imitation priesthood ordinance, a false practice that had crept into the church the he was determined to stamp out.

    Try Joseph Fielding Smith. (It’s been over 30 years since I read it, so I could be wrong).

  7. Is there a distinction in attitude between seeing a spirit off from the body to the post-mortal realm, and declaring that the spirit is headed to Paradise as opposed to spirit prison? What I’m getting at is, perhaps the brethren were uncomfortable with some sense of implied judgment there? undertaken by those not in authority to judge? Just wondering what the objection was to the practice.

  8. J:

    Shortly after I returned from my mission, I was asked to give my grandfather a blessing. He had liver cancer quite badly. When giving the blessing I felt that I knew he would not survive long. I didn’t do any ‘dedication’ thing, but my blessing reflected that I knew the end was near.

  9. Many years ago, one of my home teachers told me a story similar to Ardis’s. He said he gave a very sick woman (with cancer, IIRC) a blessing. She was at peace with the idea of dying, and during the blessing he felt impressed that he should more or less ‘dedicate” her to die. The idea freaked him out too much, though, so he gave her a blessing of healing instead.

    The woman lingered on for two more years, often in great pain, and my home teacher believed it was mostly the fault of his blessing. He told me that after that, he always said whatever he felt impressed to say while giving a blessing.

  10. Latter-day Guy says:

    This is an interesting concept, but isn’t it a little close to the line? ;)

    Seriously, I really enjoyed this post. My brother had a similar experience on his mission. He described it as “blessing someone to die.” [See link above.]

  11. Gilgamesh says:

    Where I grew up and currently live (Northern California) blessings releasing the spirit are still quite common. We did one for my mother, my grand-parent in-laws and various others in the ward. Is this not a common practice elsewhere?

  12. Kinda O says:

    I’ve heard men say they “released” someone in a priesthood blessing just prior to death. Is that the same thing, or is it important to you that the man use the word “dedication”?

  13. When my friend was about to die of cancer, and we all knew the end was near, his father and my father joined together and gave him a blessing releasing him from life. He died later that night. When my grandmother was dying of cancer, my grandfather refused to do the same thing. He felt it wasn’t his decision as to how long Grandma should live. I wish he had given her a blessing just a few days before she died, because her last few days were awful.

  14. Along with Kinda O I’ve heard my dad talk about releasing someone’s spirit prior to death.

  15. A few months ago a friend of mine told me about the last hours of his father’s life. Nearly 90 and bed ridden, he clung to life.
    One of the apostles came to visit him, a long time friend of the family. The apostle gave him a blessing and said that the only reason he was still on this side of the veil was because of his concern for his wife. He counseled him to let go and have faith his sons and daughters would take good care of their mother. Within the hour he passed.

  16. My dad was in great pain, some dementia and bed bound and asked for this.

    Much to everyone’s surprise he instead is ambulatory, out of pain and able to attend church again.

    Never what you expect.

  17. These are all very interesting comments, thank you very much. Cynthia, I think that there were a lot of factors going on, and just because it wasn’t formalized doesn’t mean that many people (including Church leaders) had very positive experiences with it.

    Eric, I think what you describe is the more common of the manifestation (at least today), if we were to put it on a sliding scale. Something closer to a normal healing blessing.

    Gilgamesh, I believe it is fairly common, but measuring frequency isn’t an easy thing.

    Kinda O, many of the early accounts reflect the idea of releasing the spirit; often after weeks of struggling and repeat administration.

  18. I know it’s a stretch but: do these kinds of blessings, to which I have been the witness of a few, have a relationship with election? A type of sealing up like unto final sentences in patriarchal blessings? Just a thought.

  19. Latter-day Guy says:

    18, interesting. Possible I guess, but the church already has “2nd Anointings” for that whole calling and election business.

  20. This is really interesting stuff, J. I’m reminded of the following account of Bruce R. McConkie’s final days, purported to be the recollections of his wife, Amelia Smith McConkie. While he doesn’t use the language of “sealed unto death,” Joseph Fielding McConkie discusses this blessing in a similar narrative in his bio of his father.

    “The following Sunday Elder Packer visited him at home and gave him a blessing in which he told Bruce he should ‘quit resisting the will of the Lord.’ We both knew what he meant. At the conclusion, with tears running down his face, Bruce looked at me as I stood at the foot of the bed, and said, ‘Amelia, do you know what he just did?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘he has sealed you unto death.’
    “That was so hard on Bruce. He wanted so much to live. But as I showed Elder Packer out, Bruce got up, folded the bedspread as he always did at night, got ready for bed, and got under the covers. Always before he would insist that I make the bed and he would lay on top of it, fully dressed. But this was his way of saying to the Lord, ‘I am bowing to your will.’ He passed away a short time later.”

  21. Just found a reference to the quoted passage in Dennis B. Horne, Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights from His Life and Teachings (Roy, UT: Eborn Books, 2000), 211. Horne cites “Packer, 265-266” as his source, though he never identifies which of the four Packer sources that he lists in his bibliography this quote comes from.

  22. Thanks for that pointer, Christopher. Very helpful.

    …and Horne being bibliographically ambiguous? I can’t imagine.

  23. Jennifer says:

    A few years ago my grandmother was at the end of her life after a long illness. My grandfather called everyone to her bedside when the nurses told him that she would not last the night. All her children and most of her grandchildren were there. My grandfather gave her a blessing with his sons, telling her that it was okay for her to go and join her parents and that she needed to go so that she could welcome the rest of us to heaven when we came. She died moments later.

    I think my grandpa did it because of the type of person Grandma was. She was the mothering type and was probably hanging on thinking that she couldn’t leave because we still needed her. I’m not sure how coherent she was at the end, but I believe that her spirit heard my grandpa’s words and finally was able to let go. It also comforted the rest of us, knowing that she was not gone forever and we would see her again.

    We give children blessings at the beginning of life, why not at the end?

  24. I released my most beloved wife to die in the night at her request. She lingered all day and in the evening sighed her last breath. I and the five of my children at her side spontaneously broke into hymns and sang until the people from the mortuary came. Her spirit was palpable.

    I had a dream about her a few months later. I was seated in a restaurant when she appeared and walked past my table. My heart leaped as I saw her. She was radiant and wonderful. I exclaimed – I thought you were dead!- She turned, smiled and said, – Why no, who told you that?-

  25. This is not only an official male priesthood thing. My maternal grandmother died a few days before this past General Conference. Grandma had been suffering terrible pain for the past two years. Though my parents live some distance from her, thankfully my mother, an elementary school teacher, was able to be with her for her last few days as mom was off work for spring break.

    The day before she passed grandma developed severe pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. That night in the hospital she became unresponsive and the doctor expected her to pass very soon. The next day, though still unresponsive, she hadn’t passed. Mom, after taking a break through the morning to get some rest, returned to grandma’s bedside in the afternoon. Knowing that grandma had always enjoyed having her hair played with, mom rubbed her fingers through grandma’s hair and began singing “Beautiful Dreamer”, a lullaby grandma had sung to mom as a child and had played on the piano every morning to wake the kids up. Grandma began to respond, squeezing mom’s hand and turning her head to look at her. Mom kissed her on the forehead and told grandma she needed to go and that everything here would be alright. Mom said grandpa and her two oldest children (both boys, the first who had died at a year old and the other shortly after birth) were waiting for her. Then mom, still holding grandma’s hand, called out to her deceased father telling him that he needed to come and take grandma, that she needed his help. Grandma again became unresponsive and finally went only an hour or so later.

  26. Thanks for this, J, and thanks to the people commenting. When we asked the Ward to fast so that my semi-comatose dad would let go of the fight against his brain tumor we were met with a little shock and resistance from a few. That night my brothers and sisters and I gathered around my dad in his bedroom and each of us told him we loved him and that it was OK for him to let go, that we knew it was his time to die. This is something I need to reflect more about, I’m not sure how well my 15-year-old brain could wrap around that situation. He died the next morning.

  27. I haven’t heard much about this practice before, but I would be concerned about the desires of the sick person.

    For example, my mother died a few years ago and in her final months, she asked for blessings a number of times from my father. She had been told by her doctors that there was little or no chance of recovery, so he always blessed her that she would be comforted and that the will of the Lord would be done. She became very upset that he wasn’t blessing her to be healed and wouldn’t let him bless her any more. She asked me to bless her and, in accordance with her obvious wishes, I blessed her to be healed. She died a couple months later, quite speedily and without sufffering, but maintaining until the end that she was going to get better.

    I can think of several problems with the idea of dedicating someone to the Lord, including what Cynthia said, but the biggest problem seems to me that we should always try to do what is in accordance with the will of the Lord and the wishes of the sick person. If someone does not want to give up and wants to be blessed to be healed, shouldn’t we give them that?

  28. I also question the motives of the person giving the blessing. In the example in the original post, it is a son-in-law “dedicating” his mother-in-law “to God”.

    I wonder if the old Lady wasn’t just taking a nap when he took advantage of the situation.

  29. I’ve mentioned this before in a comment elsewhere — when Sandra and I moved into DC itself and started attending what was then the District of Columbia Branch (later to become the reborn Chevy Chase Ward), we had a lot of elderly members in the ward who had been in the ward for decades. Our high priest group leader was frequently called upon to given them blessings, particular when they found themselves in the hospital for various health crises. He remarked once that many of his blessings were actually “releases” — in essence saying, “You’ve fought the good fight, it’s time to go home now.” ..bruce..

  30. I haven’t heard of “dedicating to the Lord” but have seen a number of priesthood blessings that included a “releasing” from mortal life. It sounds like the intent is very much the same. But some people take the “releasing” thing a little too seriously, and they often talk about it as if it’s a necessary ordinance before death–a sort of Mormon last rites. It can be unfortunate when the need to do that overtakes the realities of the moment. I had a brother-in-law who felt impressed to bless my ailing father with a “release,” but my dad lived another 4 months.

    The concept of helping the dying “let go” and reassuring them that their loved ones are accepting of their death is hardly a religious thing. A friend who works in hospice has many stories of people who will not let go until they have made peace with family members or taken care of other unfinished business. I don’t see a need to make that a priesthood function. I think it’s an emotional need that is common to the process of dying.