Addenda: Last rites: Bodies, or an urban/rural disparity

In continuing with my addenda project, I’d like to highlight an advertisement from the 1900 Utah State Gazetteer and Business Directory: (1)

Related to advertisements like this, I wrote in the Last Rites article (p. 110):

By this time [1914], beyond families and coreligionists, professionals took charge of an increasing percentage of the dead. Undertakers like celebrated “pioneer undertaker” Joseph E. Taylor had advertised regularly in the local papers for decades. Additionally, hospitals became increasingly common (75) and as one Salt Lake City news story wrote in 1911, “There is a very noticeable growing tendency on the part of people of means to be removed to hospitals in the case of serious illness.” (76) By this time, death was generally no longer a private or family affair, becoming increasingly professionalized. As historian Charles Rosenberg described this period, families came “increasingly to depend on strangers for care at times of sickness and approaching death.” (77) And while the organization of local burial committees did increase the number of bodies prepared for burial by the Relief Society for a few years, like other Americans, strangers increasingly cared for the Mormon dead (see chart 1).

Now, James Farrell has written extensively about the shift in death culture in American, and Mormons followed along the major transitions he outlines, albeit with some comparative latency. However, while Joseph E. Taylor’s advertisement above isn’t that different than other ads I had when I wrote the article, it also gets at something that I was too quick to brush by in the interest of simplified narrative. A counselor in the Salt Lake Stake Presidency (essentially a lifetime calling back in the day), and intimately involved with the burial preparations of prominent church leaders, it appears that Taylor was near the forefront of funereal technology in the late nineteenth century. With this ad placing him in a position of prominence in Western America, it forces to the front of my mind a thought that has been nagging at me in the recesses: beyond the folk/formal tension in Mormon lived religion, I also think that there is a rural/urban divide.

In the nineteenth century, how wealthy Mormons in Salt Lake City experienced death was vastly different than colonists in Southern Utah, for example. This disparity dramatically altered the liturgical experience at death. Maybe the wealthy city folks simply led in the shifts that everyone later experienced. However, the next step in such a line of thinking for me is to wonder if other aspects of ritual and belief were similarly demographically bifurcated. Moreover, with church leaders often of the more prominent, urban group, perhaps the urban experience had a more significant influence on liturgical evolution generally.

I think I need to think about this a lot more.


  1. R. L. Polk & Co., Utah State Gazetteer and Business Directory (Salt Lake City: Tribune Job Printing Co., 1900), 239.


  1. J., Because the Civil War revolutionized how the dead are cared for, I am wondering if the people in Utah who were on the cutting edge of funeral technology had direct connections to parts of the country where this was already going on-perhaps the Southern states? I guess what I’m asking is where did they learn it and did the Civil War directly affect the saints this way?

  2. J. Stapley says:

    mmiles, the short answer is that I am not sure. From what I have read of Taylor, he developped his own tech pretty early in response to the need of shipping the bodies of eastern immigrants and laborers home. Then with the movement to proffessionalize undertaking in the later decades, he naturally joined in and participated in the various organizations and trade publications. I don’t know much about the other undertakers in the area.

    As Mormons were generally isolated from the war, I suspect that its influence rested primarily in the diffusion of culture and practice and was adopted in Utah, just a bit later than other places. It is quite evident that they dud follow the national trends.

    I also don’t want to overstate the rural/urban divide. While it is certain that many Mormons in SLC purchased their burial robes from Taylor and other establishments, many wealthy city residents continued to sew robes for family members and friends during the same time.

  3. I guess this isn’t really strictly related to your post, but I think it is a shame that the care of the vessels for our dear departed are no longer cared for by the family. I firmly believe that birth and death are family affairs, and it surprises me that since as a religion we are so wrapped up in everything being about the family that we have not tried to reclaim these rites. Sorry for the threadjack, but your quote above stirred that longing within me.

  4. I love this stuff. I’ve been involved with some rural funerals in Utah and 30 years ago, they were often just a little different than the those of city folk. This is especially true of larger polygamy groups where caskets are frequently made by a friend or relative and funerals might be conducted by a family member (however, the marriage interconnections here can be complex). The embalming practices in those environments now follow those of the funeral industry. Death rituals in at least some polygamous groups, where I have observed the proceedings, follow practices that I surmise were traditions that the founders (mature adults in the 1920s) probably observed, complete with dedication of the dying to the Lord and dedication of grave sites with hands raised, singing from hymnals of the period, etc. However one observes changes creeping in here as generational shifts occur. Pride of preservation yields to cultural impositions as various pseudopodia inroad. Anyway, really interesting stuff

  5. Right on, WVS. Thanks.

    EOR, I think there is still opportunity for involvement at death, but I think many people just follow the current broader cultural conventions.

  6. Thanks J. Stapley your post has given me a lot to think about.

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