Last rites and my personal intersection with history

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.


  1. Very pleased to see this in print, J. Well done.

  2. J, I saw this yesterday on the BYU Studies site. It’s cool that they include the pictures of authors there.

    I haven’t read the whole article yet, but in reading this sidebar piece, your last paragraph about integrating ourselves with past struck home with me. I think that idea is what has drawn me to historical research these last couple of years. I hope I can keep that same sense of wonder at seeing myself in the present as an extension of these past events that involved my direct family and others who shaped the church and culture that has enriched my life.

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the article. Great, too, that one of your footnotes links to your BCC post and the comments about this same topic.

  3. Thanks!

    kevinf, it just so happens that the comments from that post figure prominently in the last section of the paper. There are a number of BCC commenters that are now officially history.

  4. Really looking forward to reading this, Jonathan.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Good stuff, J.

  6. Fantastic, J; I appreciate your top-notch scholarship, and I even more appreciate your personal reflections on the ramifications of that scholarship.

  7. Oh, this will be good, and something I’ve looked forward to since you mentioned gathering this kind of material! Will purchase a copy through the website tonight.

  8. Great J. Carefully done and thoroughly documented, it is a landmark.

  9. It is great to see this article in print.

    Your reflections here between the intersections of history of LDS ritual practice and our own lives is especially poignant. It reminds me that thinking about, exploring and being involved in Mormon history is not merely academic.

  10. History is fascinating. I sometimes wonder if we err in thinking of history of Mormons as Mormon history, or practices of Mormons as Mormon practices. Rather, a great deal of what we sometimes call Mormon history is actually cultural history shared by non-Mormon neighbors, and what we sometimes call Mormon practices are actually cultural practices shared by non-Mormon neighbors. A study of “evolving Latter-day Saint belief and practice” might effectively be a study of evolving middle-class Rocky Mountain American culture.

  11. ji, check out Ben’s post over at the JI right now. I think that you will enjoy it. And this paper definitely focuses on the non-Mormon context of Mormon belief and practice (though I think that middle class Utah probably only fits after WWII).

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