As noted on the sidebar, the recently released issue of BYU Studies includes an article, which I wrote on Mormon last rites. It describes the liturgical dynamics in Mormonism, accounting for the rise, and transmission of rituals over time. Specifically, I look at deathbed rituals (e.g., dedicating the dying to the Lord), ritualized care of the corpse, and grave dedication. There is some fun stuff about how things become formal part of Mormon liturgy and how priesthood rituals, become priesthood rituals. Additionally, the editors ask that I include a few paragraphs of personal reflection, perhaps relating how the topic of the paper reflects on my status as a believer to include in a sidebar. Not having done such a thing for other projects, I thought it would be appropriate to share here what appears there:
Part of this paper was written in the hospital room where, for five weeks, I watched my father unconsciously battle the systematic failure of his own body. My parents were visiting to witness the baptism of my oldest son. Instead of driving to the chapel where a font was prepared, we drove to the hospital, where emergency responders had just minutes before delivered my father. I was able to work remotely and consequently spent a significant amount of time by his side.
I had started this paper before that event as a logical extension of previous collaborative research on Mormon healing rituals. I have been drawn to the history of Mormon liturgy as a fruitful space to elucidate wide swaths of lived religion, theology, and religious cosmology. At the hospital, though, as I read and re-read the source materials and the paragraphs I had committed to paper, I was intimately conscious of my own place in the story of Mormon life and death. I became my own observer as I administered to my father, sought comfort in Christ’s gospel, and considered my place in the royal network of heaven and earth. In short, I prepared for my father’s death. Perhaps it was providence that he did not die. He left the hospital to eventually make a full recovery, and he will witness the baptism of my next oldest son in the summer of 2011.
Those five weeks reinforced ideas that I had earlier accepted: the scholarly examination of history is an opportunity to integrate ourselves with the past. Though it should not be viewed as prescriptive, the past can contextualize the present. It opens up possibilities as we gain a greater compassion for those who went before us and a greater compassion for ourselves. My hope is that this study will enrich the field of Mormon history and provide helpful ways to view evolving Latter-day Saint belief and practice.
I’m pleased to have this article available with BYU Studies and I encourage those who do not have a subscription to purchase one (they are pretty reasonable). The full article is Jonathan A. Stapley: “Last Rites and the Dynamics of Mormon Liturgy,” BYU Studies 50, no. 2 (2011): 96-128.