A prayer for the dead and the living

Nine years ago as we prepared for the baptism of my oldest child, we found my father unresponsive and spent the next two months watching over his chemically induced coma, amnesticly-embraced awakening, and tempered recovery. A decade earlier and he would have likely died, but ICU physicians have skillfully battled sepsis and respiratory failure to a dwindling fraction of mortality. It was so uncertain at the time, though, even with the regular calls from a dear friend and expert clinician. And because I can work remotely I spent those weeks watching at his side, waiting.

In a grim and poignant coincidence, I was also working on a history of our funerial rites—the rituals of death and dying. As my father’s body fought itself, and the mechanical ceremonies that gave him life attenuated, I reviewed and synthesized thousands of accounts of consecrating the dying, dressing the dead, and dedicating theirs graves. I tried to understand what work these have done among our people. I tried to understand what work they might do for me.

I walk with the dead. My spare moments are filled with the media that only rarely and imperfectly capture their memories. But the dead are not death. And from those days sitting next to my mother in the aspirantly sterile room, it was death. Auspiciously, my father lived to see our two youngest born and grow, and our older two will have many of memories, as will I. Though not a lifetime, nine years is something, even if punctuated with grave illness.

There was no cognitive strain when my sister’s call woke me up and she explained that my father was dying in an Italian hospital, nor when she called back minutes later to say that it was done. It made sense. It was a possibility we all considered. But I laid in bed shattered. Broken. We immediately busied ourselves attending to logistics—arranging flights, cars, beds, and flowers, food, and graves. If I could focus on these, perhaps I could piece myself together. I could execute. Then every time I saw someone I love I fell apart again.

Over the next few days I travelled and met my mom and my siblings in a state none of us call home. We had a week. We found a house where we could stay and be together. We ate, entertained each other and our extensive kin, and we made the ninety-minute drive to the rural community of my mother’s childhood. Still the new sight of those I love tore at me, but every time I fell apart it became easier to find my way back, perhaps because of them.

We wrote an obituary and we planned the services. When my mother asked me to say the grave dedication it felt like I could barely respond. It was the only thing I wanted to do, but it felt greedy. We are not a few. When she heard me choke on my tears, she asked who else it could be and I thanked God.

A number of years ago, a friend explained how he prepared for funeral speaking. He stood in front of a mirror and practiced. He repeated until he could get through it. The older I’ve gotten, I’ve found it more and more difficult to talk about things that have any meaning to me outside of the structure and safety of scholarship. As much as I wanted, or perhaps needed, to dedicate the grave, I knew how I would be. So I followed the pattern when building new temples. In my moments alone, I rehearsed the texts that have illuminated our liturgies and lived devotions. I composed a dedication, and I repeated the prayer until I could say it for myself.

In all the work that I have done to explain Mormon worlds, and the work of our rituals in particular, I was not ready for that moment. We bore the hexagonal coffin to the spot, my brothers, sister, and I. And as they, along with other family and friends rose to speak, I sat. Their words flowed with power, but I could do nothing more. Then the end came and I stood.

Oh God, our Eternal Father, by the holy priesthood, and in the name of thy Son, Jesus, we dedicate and consecrate this spot in the land of our mothers as the resting place for our father, brother, and friend. And when the Lord shall come, and old things pass away, and all things shall be made new, we shall rise from the dead, and shall not die after. We will stand together before the Lord in the holy city. We will worship Him, who through his own blood has made us kings and queens, priests and priestesses unto thee, oh God! Thou, who are King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we pray, give us peace. Amen.

And He did.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Lovely. Grace and peace to you and your family, J.

  2. In all the work that I have done to explain Mormon worlds, and the work of our rituals in particular, I was not ready for that moment.

    I think there is great wisdom in this. I am glad that peace nevertheless came.

  3. Thank you. Peace.

  4. Love you, J. That prayer is powerful. Peace be with you.

  5. I don’t have any way to respond, except that I’m glad I can call you a friend and a fellow-Saint, and I wish you and your family peace.

  6. Oh, J. <3

  7. Kristi Lee Mortensen says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights. I being daddy’s girl, he passed away. I spoke st his funeral with poem I had written about my relationships and love for this only daddy. It is at this moment I need to read and to feel inspired. Blessings to you and your family.

  8. My heart is turned to you.

  9. I love this, Jonathan.

  10. J. Thank you. <3

  11. nobody, really says:

    “who else could it be?”
    I have noticed that some brothers in the church do a lot of dedication of graves. It’s like we instinctively know who will be able to give comfort and peace before we all leave the graveside – a final stamp and signature saying that this part of the ritual is in order, and we can resume our lives and search for joy. My dad is one of these people – I’ve never been to a funeral he was at where he wasn’t asked to dedicate the grave. It is a rare thing, to have someone there who can be counted upon to be the rock that rests firmly on the foundation stone of the gospel.

  12. A blessing to read. Thank you.
    Peace be with you.

  13. I don’t think it’s possible to be fully ready for any of this. But we still present, and soldier on. This was a comfort to read, when I’m in need of it. Thank you.

  14. Beautiful sentiment, J. Thank you.

  15. Kristine N says:

    When my grandfather died I was 2,000 miles from home with a five-day old baby. I knew he was dying–he’d warned me the last time I saw him, and the night before, when I’d spoken to him on the phone I’d even thought to myself it would be okay for him to pass on. Yet, the next morning I found myself shattered and broken.

    I’m so sorry J. Death of a loved one is always so hard.

  16. J, this just resonated in my heart. Thanks for recording this prayer. And I’m very grateful you found peace.

  17. Your prayer echoes what I have learned since my wife’s death: when there are no other words, I tell the grieving that I hope they can find peace.

  18. Thinking of this has made a lump in my throat for a day now, and has inspired me to record and compose some like experiences of my own. Thanks.

  19. Jonathan, I’ve been thinking about your post since it went up. I know I’m late, but I wanted simply to say how moved I was by it. Thank you.