Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Prayers for the Dead

"Rowing Slowly Through Eternity" by Anthea

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

That’s good old Billy Collins. The imagery makes me smile. I sometimes wonder about the dead and about the relationship between those who breathe light and those of us who are still inhaling oxygen. Halloween is tomorrow. All Hallows’ Eve. I remember last year seeing a small mass of slightly-older-than-my children running freely and costumed across the grass in a yard in our neighborhood on their way to ask for candy. It was a quintessential scene of childhood. While there’s much that’s unsavory about the way some celebrate the night, there’s so much that can be beautiful about Halloween. Illuminating smiling, carved gourds. Small heroes and princesses, animals and ninjas padding from house to house receiving kindnesses in the form of small edible things.

The holiday has its roots in Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival which usually takes place on the night directly between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, the threshold opening onto the dark half of the year. It is traditionally a night of liminality, in which the veil separating this world from the Otherworld is opened and the dead can visit this mortal sphere. An intermingling of the seen and unseen worlds. I learned this from a humanities professor who specialized in medieval cathedral architecture. The class was called “Framing the Sacred,” an interesting notion, I think. How do you frame the eternal and unbounded in artwork or literature or liturgy? These were the questions we studied. She took our class to the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City one All Saints’ Day. As the choir music rained upon us and raised itself to the stained-glass cherubim circling our heads, I felt the veil thin.

My wife sits at the computer with my eternity-eyed infant daughter in her lap, typing names. Each name is a prayer of sorts—a testimony of Jesus Christ’s infinite, unbounded mercy—and of the role we play in grace. These names, gathered like blueberries from the bushes of old censuses and city records, will be carried with gentle care into holy temples and spoken with affectionate reverence, sweetness on the tongue. Prayers for the dead. “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?” asked Paul, “Why are they then baptized for the dead?” This in the middle of a discourse on the triumph of life over death, the energetic reality of resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? . . . But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”

Almost all religions that affirm the eternality of the soul offer prayers in behalf of the dead, to keep them in remembrance, to ask special protective care as they enter that bright unknown. Catholics perform masses and offer prayers for the dead. Jews offer Kaddish—the prayer of making holy. There is a lovely Jewish prayer of mourning, memorial, and obsecration called El Molai Rachamim: “God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens’ heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.” The Shechinah is the radiant cloud of God’s presence. What a nice place to rest.

Like so many others, members of my church believe perhaps paradoxically that death is not the end of living and that every life matters. Our way of offering prayers for the dead is to perform sacred ordinances on their behalf. We are baptized for the dead, immersed in water in the name of someone who has crossed over the expansive river of death. There is a physicality to the prayer, a heft and a weight. There is a sheer loveliness to it. It is a sanctifying experience to stand in another’s shoes as it were to receive the ordinances of salvation. I often imagine the people whose names are read with such affection sitting near me, or floating above me. Sometimes I imagine them laughing at the prospects and possibility opened up to them through these ordinances. Sometimes I imagine tears of joy and gratitude. Once when I received the ordinances for a long line of men from Italy, I could almost smell the spaghetti and hear their warm, excited voices. Perhaps it is only my imagination. Perhaps not.

Joseph Smith once wrote of the practice, “And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” I’ve thought often about those words “neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” My soft-spoken mission president once told me that “the salvation of a soul always requires the sacrifice of another.” He said that for all humanity, that sacrifice was the Savior, but that each of us is called upon to give of ourselves, to extend ourselves, to offer our time and our energy and our love to bring another to grace. This is what happens in the temple. Christ’s was the great vicarious sacrifice, but unless I become like Him and empty myself out for the blessing and benefit of others, neither I nor they can be saved.

These ordinances take place in temples. The temple is a liminal space, halfway between heaven and earth. What happens there conjoins the worlds. The late, gentle, Swedish Lutheran, Krister Stendahl, who in his lifetime was Dean of Divinity at Harvard University, once said of Mormon temple worship, “In antiquity, . . . the Jerusalem Temple was a place where you went to carry out holy acts, sacrifices and the like. I feel that the Mormon experience of the temple has sort of restored that meaning to the word temple.” Stendahl was a thoughtful, lovely soul. Of baptisms for the dead, which his church does not practice, he said, “It’s a beautiful thing. I could think of myself as taking part in such an act, extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That’s a beautiful way of letting the eternal mix into the temporal — which, in a way, is what Christianity is about.” He speaks of “holy envy,” saying if we might speak of such a thing, he has holy envy for the Mormon temple experience. What a nice thing to say.

In September of 1842, Joseph Smith was living in hiding from the infamous Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs, who had it out for the Mormon prophet. He spent much of his time in the space between the rafters and the roof of Edward Hunter’s house in Nauvoo, Illinois. In this setting, he wrote some gorgeous lines about salvation for the dead. Truman Madsen calls it “a rhapsody in an attic.” If poets are the minor prophets, Joseph belongs to both camps, major and minor. Here are his words:

Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy.

Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.

 Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!

The temple is a house of poetry, of imagery and spirit and symbolism and beauty, like Emily Dickinson’s house of Possibility. It affirms the great mystical connectedness of humanity, of all hallowed ones, all saints, all souls. We matter to each other. This life matters to eternity. I always leave the temple more in love and more appreciative of this dark green living, this golden-bright autumn day.


  1. Well thought thoughts, Robbie. And well articulated. Temple service is an unfathomable blessing. Thank you.

  2. I love getting your post updates, knowing I get a moment to soak in the gorgeousness of this life. Thank you Robbie!