Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » God’s Acre

God’s Acre

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 06, 2008

Josiah Francis Gibbs was already a third-generation Mormon when he was born in Nauvoo in 1845. He lived all the experiences we think of as prototypical for Mormons of that age — he crossed the Plains on foot, worked as a carpenter on such landmarks as the Salt Lake Tabernacle and Salt Lake Theater, helped settle and build up one community after another, served a mission to England, took part in his local ward activites, married polygamously, raised two families … and then for reasons too complex to outline here, but which will be explained in my biography of Gibbs, he forfeited everything that meant anything — his families and his membership in the Church — and became a bitter apostate and publisher of virulent anti-Mormon books. When his day had passed and those who had supported him had no further use for him, he was dropped by his old flatterers and faded away, a writer of cranky letters-to-the-editor until his 1932 death.

This newspaper article was written while he was still one of us, and is offered as a belated Memorial Day post.

In company with City Sexton Thadeus Cluff between whom and the writer there has existed for years the warmest friendship, a visit last Sunday was made to the city cemetery.

Near the base of the abrupt and lofty Wasatch range and lying within its shadow, Provo has selected a beautiful site for the burial place of its “loved and lost.” We noted with pleasure the improvements that are being made by Sexton Cluff, and the evidences of care for the grounds, that are manifest in the neatly graded and graveled walks, and carriage ways. It requires a peculiar organization to make a good sexton. There should not only be sympathy for the living who go to the cemetery with hearts overflowing with sorrow for the severed ties of earthly life, but also a reverence for the receptacles of the dead a conscientious regard for the trust the people repose in the guardian of the sacred ground where sleep their loved ones. Such a man is found in Thadeus Cluff.

To thoughtful and reverent natures there is not a place that inspires so many conflicting emotions as God’s acre – the silent “city of the dead.” Each mute block of granite or cold marble slab or shaft, records only the day of birth and date of death. Yet, beneath each carefully rounded mound of earth, with modest head-stone or wood, or under the mute granite monument, there sleeps a form around which cluster the tenderest memories. Many of those last resting places contain the forms of little ones whose going tugged at the very heart strings of others whose idols they were. Other graves contain the forms of those whom relentless death struck down in the full bloom of maidenhood or early manhood. Forms that, while living, represented the concentrated pride and hopes of fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, and perhaps they were too objects of yet more tender ties. Under other mounds sleep those of more mature years who left behind them children to mourn their loss, children who, perchance, were left to do battle with a world in which, at the present time, aggressiveness and selfishness are all too important factors of success. Each grave contains a history of buried love, ambition and hope.

It is well that human beings occasionally visit those cities of the dead. It pulls their minds away from worldly thoughts and brings them face to face with the inevitable. If those that visit the places sanctified by the love and tears of the living, will but give their thoughts free play and the innumerable subjects that will be presented to the mind, and that no other places will suggest, there will be pleasure in the midst of sadness, and men and women will go thence, as if from the presence of their Maker and the whisperings of spirit voices that seem to admonish for past follies, and that speak almost audible words of hope and cheer for the journey of life with a promise in “The sweet by and bye” of rest from toil and disappointments. Men and women are made the better and stronger for brief sojourn within the hallowed influence that broods over the quiet and peaceful resting places of those that have completed the journey of mortal life.

[Josiah Francis Gibbs, “God’s Acre,” Provo Evening Dispatch, 5 November 1895]



  1. Gibbs is an interesting guy, and your forthcoming biography sounds like the perfect fit. I’ll look forward to it. Did MMM have anything to do with his disaffection?

    This account of his visit to the Provo cemetery reminded me of Longfellow’s poem, In the Jewish Cemetery at Newport.

    Comment by Mark IV — June 6, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  2. Ardis, do you think that the LDS theology of the literal resurrection removes some of the holiness and reverence for cemeteries? I’ve pondered this in the last few years since both of my parents died, and my wife’s mother died. I remember so vividly seeing my mother’s body in the coffin at the viewing, and knowing “she is not there”. What we so revere and remember in life is lacking after death, and the promise of the resurrection is that we will be like we were, once again. I have a picture of my Mom from before I was born, standing by my Dad’s old 48 Chevy, scandalously showing off a bit of her knee. That’s what I anticipate her looking like when I see her again.

    When I go to visit their graves in Utah, I’m reminded of the absence of life. I find the current preferred practice of having flat to the earth headstones somewhat cold. In the older cemeteries with the multitude of different standing headstones, at least you got some sense of the individuality of the lives thus represented. It’s a sad sacrifice to the efficiency of a big tractor mower.

    Comment by kevinf — June 6, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

  3. I’d never thought of it that way, kevinf. My first reaction is that since we practically alone among all people treat the body as truly sacred, even the body in the absence of the spirit might tend to make a cemetery sacred. And I always think when I visit graves that *this* is the place where Mom and Dad will rise in the resurrection, and *that* is the scene they will first see again, which also tends to make me think of the cemetery as a sacred spot. And, too, I’m rather attracted to the rituals of death (not because I’m a ghoul, folks, but because tending to matters related to death makes me feel like I’m participating in age-old human affairs, the most basic forces of life — I have almost no opportunity to connect to the other great moments of human life, birth and marriage, so I feel a keener sense of my humanness near death) so cemeteries are important to me.

    But there is definitely something to your reaction, too. Certainly the western cemeteries I see, except for the oldest sections of the very earliest ones, seem business-like and efficient with their almost identical and flat, ground-level stones, the utilitarianism of an office building converted to a church instead of the inspiration of a gothic church or New England chapel built especially for that purpose.

    You’re making me think. On a Friday afternoon, of all things. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 6, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  4. Ardis, fwiw, I am a country boy at heart. I was raised in a little Utah town, where I could walk a few blocks from my house and be in the orchards. I love the peace of the open land; I have come to tolerate the city.

    I agree with the basic sentiment expressed in this post, but I don’t like the “cities of the dead” any more than I like the “cities of the living”. I want to be buried privately out in the open, not in some city with other bodies crowded around me. If we really are resurrected literally out of our graves, which I personally doubt, I want to come forth where I can stretch while doing so – not where I need to be careful to avoid bumping into others popping up around me.

    Comment by Ray — June 6, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  5. Ardis, I love the way Gibbs wrote about the serenity and peace of the cemeteries, and that “each grave contains a history of buried love, ambition, and hope.”

    I can sit by my parents headstones in Centerville, Utah, and by looking around, see seven generations of my family: my 2nd great-grandmother, great grandparents, grandparents, parents, brother, niece, and two grand-nephews. I have wonderful memories of each one, including the ones I never met, but know them from their histories.

    kevinf: I also believe in my heart that even though the spirit is gone from their bodies, it can stay close by. When I was editing a great-grandmother’s diaries for publication and I had questions about her life or her feelings, I would go to the Salt Lake cemetery and sit by her grave for hours, talking to her. I always came away with a new idea or place to research.

    Comment by Maurine — June 6, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  6. I love the poem, Mark, thanks. Gibbs’s defection was chiefly over politics (he was one who didn’t let his religion inform his politics, but rather grew indignant when his religion didn’t adopt his politics), but once the disaffection had taken good hold, both MMM (you may know he wrote one of the first scholarly histories of it) and polygamy became burrs under his saddle.

    (I’m sorry for the delay in posting your note. The link caused it to be caught in the spam filter; I’m trying to tweak that filter to allow two or three links before kicking in.)

    Maurine, you’re a sister cemeter-o-phile. We’ll forgive Ray for his more mundane view, won’t we?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 7, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  7. but rather grew indignant when his religion didn’t adopt his politics

    That is a lesson for our times as well.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — June 7, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  8. #6 – Thank you, Ardis. I was really worried you wouldn’t – and then my life would lose all meaning. :)

    Comment by Ray — June 7, 2008 @ 9:21 pm

  9. Pffffft!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 7, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

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