The Event Horizon: Death(3)

[Part 2 here.]

We take this feeling with us each day and it drains the gall out of our years, sucks the sting from the rush of time, purges the pain from our memory of the past, and banishes the fear of loneliness and death [In Richard Wright. Twelve Million Black Voices. (Reprint) Basic Books, 2002. p. 73]

Our past disappears behind us, memory fades and our helplessness in the face of the inexorable progress of time is repeated billions of times over in human history. What are we really? Just a few pounds of interconnected neurons, a “bundle of perceptions,” coupled with a biased and limited view of thought threads and events gone by? “What is mankind, that thou art mindful of them?”

Our concept of permanence is flawed. Our individual temporal horizons are supremely narrow: they extend over a microscopic interval of the existence of the physical universe and that in turn is the tiniest part of infinity, a necessary consideration within Mormonism.

What does our brief moment on earth mean in this vastness? Mormonism does claim some answers (in fact according to Joseph Smith, it would be useless if it did not provide something concrete there), but the answers that turned out to be (eventually) most important for me did not really lie at the surface of its modern presentation, which seems driven in some ways by a kind of quasi-Christian-fundmentalist agenda.[1] I’m not suggesting that the Church is going in the wrong direction with this. There is plenty of support in foundational Mormonism for it. I’m only saying that my own search for, I’m not sure how to phrase it, maybe comfort, ultimately did not lead there.

My beliefs at the time of my son’s death changed as they were funneled through grief; but at the same time they became more transparent to their basis if correspondingly less in their details. Let me be clear: I do believe that there is a God, that God intervenes in human lives and that petitionary prayer effects the present and future. That is a simple faith, but its ramifications are unimaginably profound and difficult. However, what I speak of here is yet more profound, though intimately connected to that intervention. I do not speak of the framework of liturgy in Mormonism, or the idea of resurrection, though both are important, more essential to me now than ever. But my journey took me there in a different way than most.[2]

Parallel to this, I believe Joseph Smith’s views of life and death became far deeper over the course of his thirty-eight years than is typically appreciated. Based on my own studies of his speeches, it surely became far more radical than most Mormons (in my experience) may be willing to entertain in the present day. It can be uncomfortable for some who may find Smith’s mature thought bewildering on the subject – and if you correlate him, you will lose the sharpness of him.[3] No less intriguing are some critics of Smith, particularly those of orthogonal religious belief, who have perennially and breathtakingly misunderstood where his deepest puncturing of “orthodoxy” really began.

I came gradually to imbibe much of what I understand of Joseph’s ideas of life and death – coming to believe at the same time that those ideas were of divine origin. In the end, I think (in my own singularity) that they form the only truly meaningful view of death within larger Christianity (though they would be viewed as stunningly heterodox in that larger scheme if anyone bothered to look below the surface of sensational “God once was” statements) and that they contain the only lasting assurance and comfort when facing it. For me. Others not only do not share that conclusion, may find it too unfinished or, like my European hosts saw my brief expressions at the time, faintly ridiculous.

However, until they can somehow share in the depth of my conviction, they will probably never understand it: personal annihilation is simply impossible for reasons that are more recondite than we are wont to consider in modern focused-message Mormonism. For reasons that are beyond any sort of Divine guarantee or act.[4] My son’s favorite tune, which he used to hum or sing around the house was, “I am a child of God.” I grant him that. But I cling to something deeper. That is where I found my way back to reconciliation. Reality cannot fail to contain my son, because it always has.

Forgive another personal observation. Mormonism is a healing faith: this is a dimension that informs much of its history and doctrine.[5] But not every healing comes by the laying on of hands or even prayer and fasting (though I have witnessed that). Not all comfort and blessing for pain or loss arises from ritual, sermon, scripture, or abstraction through the passage of time and the dimming of heartache. Sometimes healing comes by quiet unbidden inspiration, repeated again and again perhaps even unrecognized, until the light of faith blossoms. I’m absolutely convinced that this may go on, that it does go on, indeed may even begin, beyond death itself to another bright beginning, where sometime Moses-like we will know face to face.

Dreams are interesting things. For the most part, we wake with little or at least a rapidly fading memory of what our sleeping brains seem to chaotically push out of their accumulated storage. But for me at least, there are two dreams I have remembered for many years with a cold clarity of vision, perhaps like that found in deep space. That has been the case for most of the years that now separate my little boy from me. Both are relevant to the idea of death, but only one applies here. I cannot relate this dream, it has elements that I have never told anyone. But in this dream I saw a man. His face is clear in my mind as I write this.

What is death? And what happens when you die?

To these terrible questions, I add another: what will happen to you, in you, when someone near to you dies? I cannot answer that question. However, I know how I would like to answer it.

[1] That’s a bit more blunt than I meant it, but without going into 20 pages of explanation, I’m leaving it be.

[2] Remember, you are listening to someone who took E. W. Beth along for P-day reading.

[3] He is already lost in the background acoustic field. Surviving reports seem to be faint representations of the archetype, I think. The Grand Unification Theory of Mormonism (correlation) loses its way here. That is really not a criticism. I think some form of correlation was and is necessary. It’s the human in us that seems to want it to cover all the ground, to make every passage of scripture or prophetic declaration a proof-text for all others (count this as hyperbolic irony for effect). In the face of such things, my father would say, “if your salvation doesn’t depend on it, leave it alone.” Well, Dad, mine did.

[4] Historically Joseph’s views of death and the nature of man have been a sore point in some circles (if you want to know something about that, read chapter 7 of the book when it finally appears somehow). I’m not here to argue for one position or another. I am simply narrating my own experience, though I would say the research for my book on Smith’s funeral addresses has tended to confirm in new ways, my private views (which I do my best to keep out of the book).

[5] I distinguish here between various bits of exegetical-expositional superstructure, past or present, that may be offensive to some, and what I think of as its ontological/cosmological foundations (which can be offensive in a different way to different people, I suppose.)


  1. Thomas Parkin says:

    Salvation lies in penetrating mysteries. Whenever anyone, of authority or no, suggests otherwise, they are simply wrong.

    Wonderful and terrible – like reality. Thanks for all three bits. ~

  2. Carl Youngblood says:

    WVS, I got the feeling as I read this that I was at the threshold of learning something profound and meaningful but just couldn’t find enough planks in the rope bridge to make it across. I wanted to understand, for example, how this important dream related to your experience, but I simply did not have enough information to succeed.

  3. Carl Youngblood says:

    I hasten to add: Thanks for sharing this. Some friends and I have had lengthy discussions about how identities might be reconstructed sufficiently for resurrection to take place, keeping in mind the Mormon emphasis on natural non-dualistic explanations for all the works of god(s). This has provided some excellent additional food for thought and contemplation.

  4. Carl, I was similarly lost.

    Though reading these essays made me realize that I have not come far enough. I am still so far from healed myself.

  5. Made me think of, and worry for, anneGB again as well.

  6. Latter-day Guy says:

    I got the feeling as I read this that I was at the threshold of learning something profound and meaningful but just couldn’t find enough planks in the rope bridge to make it across.


    This is wonderful, WVS. I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but I’m on tenterhooks to find out.

  7. Mommie Dearest says:

    I cannot imagine having to plan and execute a funeral for one of my children. I see that I spend way too much time fretting over small losses.

    At first glance, I thought the title of this series referred to the experience of the person dying, and after reading the comments, I could see that it refers more to the experience of a person left behind, who suffers the profound loss created by the untimely death of someone close. My closest experiences with death, so far, have been people who had mostly lived their full lives, with one exception being the sudden and too early death of my mother in her 50’s.

    Like everything else, we don’t all experience the death of our loved ones equally. I am beginning to wonder if our own deaths will be this way as well. I feel like the information we have through our doctrine is rather sparse. Sometimes I marvel at the opaque barrier between this life and…anything else.

  8. I cannot offer much resolution here. I will tell you that the man I saw in my dream was my son.

    This experience was a Tunguska experience for me. The shock waves went out and wreaked havoc in the lives of people mine only briefly touched. It’s still doing that. I can’t offer a resolution for that, myself. There are damages that can’t be repaired by me. But I think that all our lives have or will have such things in them. This is where Christ offered hope for me. Not just that I might be fixed somehow, but that the collateral damage that mattered in the long run could be made to flower in good. Moreover, I expect that I am not alone in this. To a greater or lesser extent we all cause damage or give good things as we bumble along each day. I hope that the infinite Christ can follow all those threads and weave them into a tapestry of forgiveness for me and all of us qua the restored Gospel. That is my belief and my resolution as it stands now.

  9. WVS,
    Thank you for sharing your experience, your journey and your testimony. My young son died in 1987, though not so unexpectedly. I understand the difficulty of explaining the resolutions you have found. I didn’t dig so deeply into theology to find my own. At this point I accept that God’s ways are not my ways and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts. I accept that in this life I will not understand or comprehend God. God is so much greater than my puny mind can know. I also believe that things/people/spirits exist beyond my physical perceptions as I have often felt my son’s presence as my guardian angel.
    Blessings to you and your family.

  10. google search for “quantum archeology”

  11. I’m afraid I’m following the sentiments here so far. I feel like I desperately want to understand, and am near the edge, but it is yet too far away. You have categorically declared annihilation is impossible (an extremely bold claim) and yet I don’t feel you’ve offered an alternative for me.

    I’m torn, because in my moments of grieving for my future death and the death of loved ones, I wish desperately that annihilation were impossible. But when I am jerked out of my longing for immortality the pesky facts of life and death rear their ugly head and I am forced to confront the possibility that this is really it. Or rather, more to the point, I have to confront the fact that I find little reason beyond my own emotional discomfort, desires, culture, and spiritual witnesses to acknowledge that there is even a possibility of life after death. Perhaps for many those are “evidence” enough. My life experience has taught me that, at least for me, there needs to be more.

  12. jmb275: it was, and is a singular journey. While it is partly expanded on in the links, I cannot claim that it is the path everyone can or should take. My conviction about Smith’s claims about the necessary existence of the person was what provided the foundation I needed. I can’t really argue for it except to say that it was a revelation to me. I really believe that most have to work this out themselves, and as I indicated, it can be a very long process, full of doubt and troublesome questions. I think my path was similar to many, but unique in other ways.

  13. it was, and is a singular journey. While it is partly expanded on in the links, I cannot claim that it is the path everyone can or should take.

    I was afraid you’d say that ;-) .

    I have one other question for you. Did you seek answers diligently outside of Mormonism as well as inside? Did you limit yourself to Mormon theology? I guess I’m really asking if, in your view, did Joseph’s views strike a chord with you because of your culture/history, or do you think you would have arrived at Joseph’s truths regardless of your previous beliefs/culture. A very hypothetical question and one that’s difficult to pull apart, I know. But I’m really curious.

  14. Mostimportantly says:

    As another parent who lost a child almost 5 years ago, I wish to thank you for this series. Unlike, other responders, I think I do understand this, but I also find it difficult to explain without leaving the same “gaps in the planks” that you have, or writing my own 3 part essay.
    I will say that this is a journey I am still on. I am also certain that personal annihilation is impossible. This is based on some experiences I have had similar to your dream of your son. My daughter still exists. I don’t know for sure where or how. There are things I hope for and expect. I hope she is now perfect and free of the pain she lived with. I hope she knows how much I love and miss her every day. I hope she forgives me for my ineptitude as a first time parent with her, and for any opportunities I missed to make her life better. Paradoxically, at the same time as I hope for this level of consciousness from her, I hope that some day I will be able to hold her again as the 5 month old she was when I lost her and to raise her to adulthood. Many other Mormons express that this is their (our) belief, but I am not sure where this comes from. Maybe this is what they think the comfort of the gospel is.
    Like others have expressed, comfort for me has come less from the gospel and more from the miracle of her life and death itself. “Families are Forever” is nice, but it does little for me when I simply miss her and my arms ache because I can’t hold her NOW. But the lessons that I continue to learn from her life- the unexpected opportunities to teach others and to be of comfort others is what brings comfort to me.

  15. Did you seek answers diligently outside of Mormonism as well as inside? Did you limit yourself to Mormon theology? I guess I’m really asking if, in your view, did Joseph’s views strike a chord with you because of your culture/history, or do you think you would have arrived at Joseph’s truths regardless of your previous beliefs/culture.

    I did explore a number of things. I looked at various Christian traditions, studied Augustine, some secondary stuff. This may seem odd, but I did consider early Egyptian texts. I took a long hard look at death as a scientist/mathematician. But I thought I should give the Mormon view some hard study too. That meant, for me, looking very carefully at Joseph Smith. The trip-wire was the Book of Abraham. I got to looking at Abr. 3:17-18. I thought I saw something there. So I looked to see if that was reflected in Smith’s later words – I mean primary sources – not necessarily the interpretive literature of Mormonism. It was. And his interpretation seemed to match my own. At first I thought it was weird that people weren’t jumping up and down about this. The thing felt like I had just completed a very difficult proof. It was crystal clear. More than that, for me it made (nearly) everything fall in place. It was a revelation. I’ve never looked back. (Don’t laugh, Stapley: it gave me a great appreciation for B. H. Roberts.) I can’t erase my own history from this, of course.

  16. Can you go more into the things you found during your studies? The various beliefs in the different religions, and how it ended with Joseph Smith’s teachings? And what exactly, those are? I mean, I feel like I know the basics, or at least the stuff that gets repeated in church…but what does he say exactly? What part of it was a revelation to you?

    I’m just curious…I’m still trying to fit all the pieces together, and while I’m ready to throw out most of them, I can’t seem to let go of the idea that my child doesn’t exist anywhere anymore.

  17. Personal and timely for me, WVS–beyond what I’m willing to state publicly. Thank you.

  18. 15. That would take a lot more than a blog comment. But one of the reasons I enjoyed Terryl Givens’ book, When Souls Had Wings(though not so much the Joseph Smith part <grin>) — it was like traveling familiar ground in so many respects. As far as what Joseph said, that’s a complex story too, but the upshot was this: all who grieve for the loss of friend or family, those persons have not winked out of existence, because they never began to exist.

  19. You’re very welcome, Margaret.

  20. StillConfused says:

    I think that one of the things that we can do as adults is to have some frank discussions with our loved ones about our mortality. Because I had some serious medical conditions at a young age, I have had a realistic view of mortality and have had pretty open discussions with my children about it too. On the other hand, there are those people who even when they know they are dying, do not have discussions about it with their loved ones. That makes it harder for the survivors. (obviously in the case of the death of a child, this type of discussion doesn’t happen and maybe that is another reason why that kind of death hurts so much)

  21. You know, reading this series helped me to realize just how far from healed I really am.

    I’ve come a long way since the dark days from January of 1993 to August of 1997, but I have so much further to go, so much further.

  22. Stephen M, hugs to you and your wife.

  23. My mother was one of 13. The oldest girl. The first to have a child in this group__my sister Pat. Pat was the center of love by parents, aunts and uncles. She died at 6 (1942). It was like an ax cut through the family. I was born less than 3 years later__the first boy. At some point, I became aware that I was the replacement child for Pat and this left it’s mark on my youth.
    I only say this to show the dark hole that can by left by the death of a child. Pat has been part of me my whole life__yet I never knew her.

  24. Dad,
    Thanks for sharing this. That moment in time continues to reverberate in my life and in part has made me who I am. I will never forget that it was the first time I was witness to your tears (which profoundly affected me). You and mom were and are amazing.

  25. Yeah, Char. I was never a cryer. Bugs most everyone I think.

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