Your Sunday Brunch Special: Theology of Place

We talk of sacred space. Spaces become sacred to us for various reasons, like dedicatory prayer, or usage over time. Home is often writ large as sacred in Mormon narrative, but in our transient modern existence, we have no stable places of residence. The narrative is often morphed by sayings like “home is where the heart is,” an especially popular one with the advent of the restless wandering of the twentieth-century.

Joseph Smith preached a Zion where stability extended through life to death and then resurrection. The Mormons never found that kind of stability while Joseph lived, though he hoped it lay in Nauvoo and to-be-established centers of Mormonism in the US and elsewhere.

Joseph’s vision of resurrection moved the already sacred space of burial to another level. He saw burial as strategic—a way to guarantee joy on resurrection morning. His announcement of the nature of resurrection made it seem that fortuitous laying to rest near one’s family and closest friends was a most desirable thing, and left public requests to the effect that he wished to be buried near his own family group with father, mother, etc.

His own requests had an effect on the young church. For a time, those who died in service far from home saw their remains transported to the “center stake” to lie dormant until the moment when they could rise and “strike hands” with their fellows in the cause of Christ, and smiling, watch as long dead wives, husbands, children, parents would fall into joyful aching arms.

Modern existence seems to work against such visions of affectionate closeness. Our lives move us thousands of miles from parents, siblings, children and friends. And that distance works to weaken bonds, separate lives and move life orbits beyond those familiar sharing intersections of childhood and youth.

Before the vistas of travel opened, families grew, spread, joined, and rejoined in a kind of human petri dish of expansion (real life of course is never as pleasantly unruffled as memory and fiction make it–but go with me here). The burial plot was a family exercise or in a nearby church. Americans were especially good at breaking the paradigm. Antebellum times were expansive, wandering, opportunistic times. No wonder individualistic religions like Methodism prospered in that environment. In a sense, despite its forced-march migrations, Mormonism worked against this. Sealings of husband and wife, parents and children didn’t just stamp “permanent” on loving connections, it drew people into loving community, a personalized earthly Zion.

Planning for death is not a pleasant prospect and the ethic of common burial is mostly gone from modern life. Our jobs, marriages and other circumstances drive us far afield and we often see lives of family members end thousands of miles apart. These days, there is even talk of such separations becoming interplanetary. The needs of existence conspire to drive thick and fixed wedges of between us. I fear the advantages Joseph saw in physical proximity, even in death, now begin to escape our consciousness. Social media and “facetime” not withstanding, I think the ties that bind are thinning and we don’t, and perhaps can’t, recognize it.


  1. My family and I just returned to the East from visiting the West to take a daughter to college. We were able to see many members of both extended families and it struck me that except for a few random tears, the partings were not very emotional, even though the last time one of the families parted like this, there was a tragic accident and most of us never saw one of my nieces alive again.

    We know perfectly well that we may never see each other again in this life, but perhaps we’ve all said farewell so many times to go and live in distant lands that we can’t invest each parting with great emotional energy.

    Or perhaps we feel those emotions but don’t have the cultural means to express them like the people described in “Venus in Tahiti,” both this week and last week’s installments.

    “The whole town population gathered at the wharf where a short meeting was held, consisting of a Prayer for their safety an address of welcome by the governor & two songs. After the natives were through with their long & loud parting farewells and weeping on one another’s neck those small boats sailed out of the pass.”

    “Tane Mervin a young half caste was leaving also, to go to war and there was a great weeping and wailing over him. Some of the old ladies just lay flat down on their stomachs and dug up the ground with their bare feet and hands while they screamed and chanted their ancient parting prayers. Until after dark & the boat was out of sight they were calling out ‘Ane Tane e.'”

  2. J. Stapley says:

    This is all so stirring. I had two thoughts. Despite never living there, I must admit to wanting to be burried with my mother’s kin in Manti.

    There is this wonderful bit in Mary Haskin Parker Richards Winter Quarter diaries, where church leaders are clearly not please with the amount of people going down to Missouri to find work. Wilford Woodruff gets up and says that I hope no one dies when they are down there, because when the angels come for the resurrection, they are going to skip Missouri, because what kind of Saint is burried there! I paraphrase, but still funny.

  3. I wonder if genealogists (or historians who study the lives of individuals, in contrast to issues or themes) might be drawn to this concept more than others? Or maybe it’s a preexisting affectionate interest in the dead that draws us to this type of work in the first place?

    My aunt, an old school genealogist and one of the least sentimental women I ever knew, bought her cemetery plot next to her mother’s, and just about the last thing she did before she died was to buy a plot for me next to my own parents’ graves. I admit to sitting there on that hillside next to my parents’ graves and imagining what it might be like on Resurrection morning …

  4. marginalizedmormon says:

    It has come to be an exorbitantly expensive thing to bury someone.

    Some of us have taken “Zion” to a place inside the heart, because *we* have no connection to any earthly Zion–

    I guess I’ll be the exception to this discussion. I am a citizen of the world, and I would prefer to be cremated (it costs less for the loved ones left behind) and have my ashes scattered–

    not because I have abandoned my ‘roots’, but because the roots are simply gone–

    I will still be resurrected; if not, what about those who died at sea; I find it hard to believe that they kept the remains until they reached land–

    I would like to be able to follow Brother Joseph’s suggestion about this–

    but he did live in a different time, and I think the church and the times have both changed so much he wouldn’t recognize them. Sad as that is, it is reality–

  5. JennyP1969 says:

    I remember a lesson in RS decades ago where a Polynesian sister taught that when she married a mainland GI during WW2, her parents and family came to bid farewell as they embarked to her husband’s home and family in Virginia. Their families were poor. They were saying goodbye for this life.

    Her mother was last and embraced her in tears. But she quietly told her daughter: Be good to your new ward and stake… good to your husband’s people — these are your family now.

    I was homesick that day in Williamsburg, with my family on the west coast. Her words pierced my soul and I felt the Spirit deeply, but knew I wasn’t understanding the whole message at that moment. Over the next few days I pondered and prayed, seeking further understanding than the immediate obvious. Then it came over me like a morning mist: no matter where you live, you are with the children of one God. We are all family. All…….

    My homesickness faded and has been no more. I will be honored to be buried and raised with my dear family. And I will look forward to reunions with other family that happen in mere moments, no matter how far the States, continents, and galaxies far, far away.

  6. Not From Utah says:

    I come from a family where both my parents are converts, (one at age 4, the other at age 18) and the only connection we had to Utah was one aunt who was a descendent of Wilford Woodruff. She was the first genealogy snob that I met, and while I can see now that she probably felt insecure around my mom and our family, at the time it just made me want to run every time she started telling us that the “blood of the prophets” ran through her, (and her children’s) veins.

    When my stepfather joined our family, I got another “born, raised, and going to die in Utah” aunt who had married my step uncle. She doesn’t have much to do with the California/Oregon side of the family. The year her mother invited our family to come to their large Utah family reunion, before we had made the arrangements to go, the offer was rescinded by her mother. (Her mother seemed pretty embarrassed to be rescinding the offer, but my aunt had said she wasn’t bringing her family if her mother was going to start inviting “just anyone,” to come to the reunion.)

    As a teenager, I didn’t understand why Utah transplants would refer to Oregon as “the mission field,” in their testimonies or lessons, but we certainly understood that we were seen as second class citizens by those who resented needing to leave Utah to earn a living.

    Ardis, and the Keepa community in general, have helped me connect to Utah culture in a more positive way. I do still think that a lot of the lamentation over losing family connections by moving “all the way to Oregon,” is pretty silly. In an attempt to head it off at the pass, I have started saying that I feel lucky to have been born to pioneer parents who joined the church because they recognized the gospel when it was taught to them. I express my gratitude to have grown up in a city, that within my lifetime, has gone from 1 ward to 5 wards. I’m excited that more than half of that growth has been through convert baptisms, and another quarter because of children born in the church. I am also always glad to see that we as a stake always pull together, and are willing to take in Utah’s economic refugees, even when they take awhile to learn the culture.

  7. Sharee Hughes says:

    I was born and raised in Canada, came to Utah to go to BYU (and my parents moved down here during that time). I moved to Hawaii for several years, then back to Utah, where I still live. But even though I have pioneers in my family tree, who crossed the plains in the Martin handcart company, I am far from a pioneer snob. As far as I;m concerned, Utah is just where I live right now. I have family members all over. I don’t feel ties to any particular place. Wherever I live is “home.” Early saints moved all over, too. Remember they moved from place to place often before ending up in Utah. Many came from England or Scandinavia. My bother’s children live in various states and we don’t see each other often. But today we have the telephone and e-mail, so it’s much easier to keep in touch with those who live in distant places.

  8. This is a touching post.

    As someone who has lived all around the country (literally in almost every region of the United States), the vast majority of which has been thousands of miles away from my parents and siblings and the burial places of my ancestors, I thought I had lost any deep-soul connection to any particular place – until my parents health started to deteriorate and my heart began to long to be near them in their last years, however long that is at this point. I have been pulled and tugged and pushed for a few years now toward them in their new home area – far from the Utah homeland in which I was raised and in which I thought they would die.

    It’s been an enlightening and educational experience to feel a pull toward an area in which I have not lived and where I have no earthly ties – where the only attraction is living once more near my parents (and the sister and brother who also live there now).

  9. Kirsten says:

    As marginlaizedmormon mentioned in his/her comment, there are many ways to be “buried”. I just want to point out that there is a movement to go back to traditional burial methods and forego using a funeral home and taking care of a loved one’s body by oneself in the home. It’s much less expensive, as you can imagine. It also can be a very meaningful thing to wash and dress a body. It is legal, at least in Utah, to bury someone on private property, depending on the size of the property and it is also legal to bury someone in wilderness areas. There is an organization in Utah, and I believe in many states, to help people with this choice. It’s run by volunteers and started by people who would like to see more people understand the benefits of funerals run by the family and not a business that usually charge exorbitant fees. When the day comes that someone I’m close to dies, I look forward to caring for them, building them caskets and not following the unnecessary practice of embalming.

    Here is the website of the Home Funeral Directory for every state that has volunteers.

  10. Kirsten, thanks for that information, but you forgot to include the link.

  11. Interesting concept, Kirsten. Legal issues notwithstanding, I doubt I want to be buried in my backyard, with the tree roots and water problems, and the house likely to be sold to someone else. No one in my family is “landed” in the sense you talk about, so it would be problematic.

    All that aside, my wife and I, having moved from Utah 20 years ago, haven’t really thought about where we might be buried. Most of our extended family is in Utah (or Idaho), but all but one of our children and their families are here in Western Washington, and I suspect that if they stay here, we likely would want to be buried here. We miss visiting family graves on “Decoration Day” as my wife’s family refers to Memorial Day, so the pull of that sacred space is still very much with us.

  12. Kirsten says:

    Sorry, guys, unlike gmail, BCC doesn’t remind you to attach something when you said you would :) Here’s the link for the Utah organization: There are groups in many states that do the same thing.

    And you are right kevinf about burying on your own property and the problems it could cause for most people, but many that do their own home funeral use the cemeteries also but they do the arranging themselves and save literally thousands that way.

  13. Kirsten says:

    Here’s the other link I meant to include:

  14. This morning I chatted with my wife on the importance of property after reading your great post and studying D&C 101. So why is land so important ?

    I don’t own a property really. I “own” an appartment and actually I only own a loan…
    My plans are to get land somewhere where we could be happy. Land allows you to establish a community a little zion even though it starts with just a mom and a dad. My land would provide food water and shelter. I could build a big house in order to be able to take care of my childrens’ childrens in case of troubles. There I could take care of my parents when they get old because they dedicated so much time & efforts raising me. I would dedicate this piece of earth to the Lord and His doctrine would be found there. I’d love to be burried in my land with my relatives because it would mean all this.

    I believe ancient Israel Nephi and many others had that vision too. “We’ll find a land wich God for us prepared…” type of feeling. Jews feel this way towards Palestine.

    D&C 101: 77 “…if they will hearken unto this counsel they may buy lands and gather together upon them; and in this way they may establish Zion.”

    Often we say Zion is the pure in heart and it’s true. But we don’t talk much anymore of Zion as a place. But to me Zion means a home a temple a piece of land and ultimately the earth where the pure in heart are to be found.

  15. glasscluster says:

    My mother was buried in Asia.

    When she died, I learned that “sacred” in LDS funeral practice is “uncivilized” elsewhere. To manipulate a body with embalming fluids…to fake the appearance of life when nature dictates death…to display the deceased to a “gawking” public….is considered in poor taste.

    To bury instead of cremate is to allow the body to be “eaten” by other organisms…unthinkably disrespectful.

    Her death led me to understand that, in death, we become “dust” (particles, atoms, elements).
    It matters not so much how we are buried because, in Resurrection, “dust” is recombined and we are formed again.

    As for theology of place—

    I stay away from my mother’s homeland which some argue should be my own. I have wished I could snap my fingers and be at her grave…to experience the sense of closeness I observe on Memorial Day at stateside cemeteries.

    But since visiting is not feasible, I create “homeland” in my mind. After all, death means a person is no longer confined to one place/country. My mother is not in her casket. She comes to where I am.

    I have moved many times …most recently to Utah Valley where I expected to fit in least of all places because I have no family ties to the Church.

    However, of all the places I have lived, here feels like “home.”

    I consider it the responsibility of a modern Saint to de-rigidify his/her definition of homeland…to adopt a new one as the Lord takes us all over the world. That is how people made friends with me, a non-LDS person living abroad…and how I stopped excluding myself from the sometimes insular, fraternity-like world of the Church.

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