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The Grave Hath No Victory

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 10, 2009

(Mosiah 16:8)

The Mormon relationship to the graves of our loved ones is a complex one. Perhaps because of our understanding of the importance of the physical body to our eternal progression, most of us prefer to lay our friends away in peaceful graveyards, yet cremation is not prohibited. There may be an added layer of emotional turmoil in the event a body must be left in the ocean or on the battlefield, but we don’t believe there is any lasting consequence to one whose body is not buried in consecrated ground. We dedicate our graves and pray that they will remain undisturbed until the resurrection day, and many of us like to visit family graves, yet we know that our loved ones are not there but have gone elsewhere.

As a people – the Mormon people, distinct from individual people who are Mormons – we have a special relationship, I think, to graves that reflect (celebrate? even exaggerate?) our history as a suffering people. Who could visit Winter Quarters, for instance, without pausing at the cemetery there? You might visit an individual grave if you are a literal descendant of the pioneer buried there, but most of us view that cemetery, and a few others, as a symbolic whole, representing the sacrifices and sufferings of our ancestors as a people.

If that’s true of entire cemeteries, I think it is sometimes even truer of individual graves in lonely spots.

Exhibit 1: Rebecca Winters (1801-1852) joined the Church in New York and moved with it through Ohio and Missouri and Illinois, and died of cholera in Nebraska while attempting to reach the Salt Lake Valley. William F. Reynolds, a friend of the family, scratched “Rebecca Winters – Age 50” on a tire iron, and drove that arched iron into the ground to serve as Rebecca’s only monument. The wagon train moved on, and the location of the grave was lost to family memory on the prairie.

Then in 1899, surveyors for the Burlington Northern Railroad came across the iron memorial in the intended path of the rails and realized that it must mark the grave of a pioneer, probably a Mormon pioneer. They not only resurveyed the line for several miles in order to bypass the grave by a few feet, but also sent word to Salt Lake City of what they had done. One of Rebecca’s descendants was Augusta Winters Grant, wife of then-Apostle Heber J. Grant. The family visited the old grave and erected a granite headstone there; that grave became a site of pilgrimage not only for family members but for other Mormons who treasured it as a tangible symbol of the Mormon pioneer trek. (So many visitors came to the grave, then only a few steps from an active rail line, that safety became an issue; in 1995, the grave and its monuments were moved a safer distance from the rails.)

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Exhibit 2: May Whiting (1862-1882) considered Springville, Utah her home, although she and her family had become early settlers of Arizona. May became ill at Christmas, 1881, and pleaded to be taken home. She was still ill the following spring, so her family decided to take her there by wagon over the rough trail through Arizona and southern Utah. The caravan had made it as far as House Rock in the desolate Arizona Strip 30 miles north of the Grand Canyon, when May became too weak to go on. The family of George Washington Adair opened their home to the Whitings; Adair rode to Kanab seeking a doctor, but May died on May 5, ten days short of her 20th birthday. A family reminiscence indicates:

Brother Adair happened to have some lumber … They made the coffin which was a nice roomy box. Grandma had along some bleached muslin which we used to line the coffin inside and out. We had no lace or trimming … Well, I took some of this muslin and cut it in strips of six inches wide, then I cut scallops on one edge then cut small notches around the scallops, then cut a design on each scallop. This we pleated all around inside of this rude coffin. We made her a soft bed with her own choice pillow. When she was dressed in her endowment robes we placed her in and she looked like she was asleep. …

Never will I ever forget that sad funeral. I believe her brothers dug the grave. They carried her upon that mound and buried her just as the sun went down or just a few minutes later. This was the saddest funeral I ever witnessed. I think Brother Adams dedicated the grave. Sad. Sad. When our little company pulled out the next morning, leaving the lone grave of our loved one, there never was a thought given but what her body would later be moved to Springville, her birthplace. … I feel that this is a hallowed spot and God and the angels watch over it.

May’s grave does not garner the visits paid to Rebecca Winters’ grave, but in 1934 the Whiting family

attended a reunion at the grave to place a new granite rock and cement monument. People wondered why this caravan of cars were going into the desert. It took our grandmothers five weeks to travel on the long road while this new generation came in a day, two hundred of them, from Idaho, Utah, California, and Arizona. That lonely spot was a town for three days.

Aunt May seemed indeed to be with us. The spot was sacred and never did the living and dead seem to draw so near together. It was like we had imagined in the great beyond on the morning of the resurrection day. Sisters who had not seen each other for thirty years were reunited over this lonely grave, and men and boys worked feverishly to finish the beautiful mound, old men and also brothers of the one dead, were even there on invalid beds. Tears were shed as if the grave had been made today, instead of fifty-two years ago.

Exhibit 3: When I read about May Whiting’s lonely grave on the Arizona-to-Utah trail, I recalled a reference to another grave made on the same road, but this time by a family traveling from Utah to Arizona. Eliza Pearl Cluff was the daughter of Moses Cluff and Eliza Langman, and was born in Provo, Utah on July 30, 1876. Neither Ancestral File nor any of the dozen databases posted elsewhere by family members gives any clue to her life beyond that birth. It is as though she vanished and has been forgotten. One purpose of this post is to record the date and place of Eliza’s death, so that it will be visible to Google where some family member may find it someday.

Eliza was only three when she died on September 26, 1879, and she is buried, without a marker, in the pioneer cemetery at Kingston, Piute County, Utah. Volney King, the journalist of the United Order community there, preserved this trace of the pioneering child’s life and death:

Sat Sept 27th [18]79

Cloudy most of the day. …

Bro Moses Cluff & Bro. Mills stop with us to night on their way to Arrizona Bro Cluff lost a little girl of 3 year[s] last night & have brought it here for Interment All necessary assistant is being rendered them

What are your thoughts or feelings about visiting graves? (It needn’t be a downer in the middle of your Christmas preparations – sometimes the tender feelings from remembering loved ones is a part of the nostalgia of the holiday.)



17 Comments »

  1. I love graves and hallowed sites of resting places of our “gone befores”.
    That affection and positive feeling is possible because of my sure testimony of their still living close, not far, byond a veil that for me, is frequently transversed.
    They live, and when I visit the temporary place of bodies repose, I reverence the whole eternal plan more clearly. Feelings for them and knowledge combine as I view a solid and real evidence of where we all temporarily go.
    I dearly miss my Mom and Dad as I was an only child. But I can more appreciate the gift of our Savior..that of resurrection..in a cemetary.
    I am not fond of mausoleums. Many did not follow certain guidelines and the odor of embalming fluid escapes. There are, however, many beautiful and appropriate ones where there is NO such distraction. I understand that those who have gone before appreciate our remembrance by our visiting their body’s place of interrment.
    In Sparta, Tennessee, the community graveyard has a special day of gathering and placing fresh flowers / flags / with everyone who has family or friends there. It is tradition and very loving and helps soothe grieving. They follow the day’s “decoration” ceremony with a cook-out and social. No doubt, the departed watch and enjoy seeing those left behind enjoying themselves.
    Years ago, I enjoyed visiting ancestor’s sites and hand rubbing old grave stones…for historical significance and a way to “touch” the past with a visible remembrance for my grandchildren and great grands to come.
    There has never been any fear or negative attached to these activities.
    It is a form of the highest respect and regard.
    Love to All…and I wish you all a Holy Christmas
    full of celebrating our Savior’s birth.

    Comment by Sharon LDS in TN — December 10, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  2. When I was 7 years old, my father was buried in a grave in the Payson Utah cemetery. I hated going there at first, but gradually grew to appreciate it. For the 45 years since then, we’ve returned frequently to remember and ponder. I often came with my mother and talked about the headstone that bore her name next to his.

    Last month, Mom was placed next to Dad. It was strange to see the hole re-opened, and to somehow be that much closer to our Dad.

    The ground is now frozen and snow-covered; recent graves seem harsh in the winter. And we won’t be able to have the marker replaced until next spring. But there is something about being there, near the earthly remains of one (two) you love, that touches the heart. I love to visit. My appreciation seems more real and accessible when I’m there, and blesses me. I can only hope they feel it too.

    Comment by David Kenison — December 10, 2009 @ 9:21 am

  3. Very touching stories. I believe that visiting graves can be a fitting memorial to people and events that are important to us. However, the practice of visiting a grave and speaking to the person as if they were there seems pointless to me. I personally doubt that the deceased has any particular interest in the mouldering clay that was their mortal body, or in the spot where they left it.

    Comment by ricke — December 10, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  4. One of the most inspiring experiences I can have is to visit the grave of an ancestor or individual whose personal history I know and understand. My two favorites are my great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Allen, baptized in the Mississippi River at Nauvoo during the exodus, an 1847 pioneer with Abraham O. Smoot’s company (4th hundred), early Draper settler, Nauvoo Legionaire with Lot Smith in the Utah War, and buried in Draper. Another is Jefferson Hunt, senior Mormon officer in the Mormon Battalion, founder of Huntsville and buried in an obscure, seldom visited grave in a very small family cemetery behind a knoll at the site of Lake Bonneville’s outlet 20,000 years ago at the extreme north end of Cache Valley in Idaho. At the foot of the knoll is a sign describing Lake Bonneville’s outflow and there is a steep concrete stairway to the top of the knoll where a stone monument with a bronze plaque placed by the Daughters of the Pioneers memorializes Captain Hunt. It inspires me to realize how lives connect — Andrew Jackson Allen traveled from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters under Hunt’s leadership in 1846.

    Comment by Curt A. — December 10, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  5. Yesterday I stumbled across a small website dedicated to documenting graves in the area where my paternal grandparents were buried. I was unable to attend either of their funerals, so I appreciated being able to feel a connection to them yesterday–even if only by seeing a few photographs of the gravestone.

    I find it a bit sad to see the gravestones in old church cemeteries that are crumbling or whose inscriptions are now unreadable.

    Comment by Justin — December 10, 2009 @ 9:42 am

  6. Thank you for all these thoughts, and more that I hope will be forthcoming. I was recently able to visit the graves of my parents for the first time since my father’s burial five years ago (the cemetery isn’t that far away from me, but it isn’t on a bus route so it might as well be on Sumatra). I know the dead aren’t really there, but we living sometimes need a focus for our eyes and our thoughts as we remember. There’s always something powerful about seeing or hearing or speaking a name that restores a part of the reality of that person’s life, in my experience.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2009 @ 9:51 am

  7. ricke,
    I believe that people can converse with departed loved ones at their grave and feel the presence of that loved one. They are not far from us and many people have been promised that that the veil will be thin between a deceased mother, father, or spouse and the living.

    Back in the 1980s when I was researching and editing the journals of my second great-grandmother for publication by USU Press, there were times when I needed answers about sources to search, of her feelings about polygamy, and other things. I kept a picture of her above my computer and talked to her all of the time, feeling of her presence. When I was really stumped, I headed to Salt Lake cemetery and sat at her grave, asking questions. I always came away with a new perspective or a new place to search. Mind you, these sources were previously unknown to me, so could only have come through a higher power. The interesting thing though, is that when I searched the sources I had been inspired to find, often what I found was not the answer to my questions at the time, but something completely new that I had never thought of.

    Was Mary there in spirit, helping me to write her story? I believe she was.

    Comment by Maurine — December 10, 2009 @ 10:49 am

  8. Thanks for this.

    I don’t have a strong belief in communicating with the departed at the gravesite, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t find the experience to be spiritually and personally significant, either. I think that visiting a cemetery/grave is an uplifting experience because it combines some element of mental, spiritual and physical effort. As the post pointed out, we don’t really believe that grandpa is there, in the ground, but we are physically remembering the deceased. There’s an element of sacrifice that makes the visit meaningful.

    Moreover, there’s a physical element to it, too. Walking to a grave, getting in a car, sometimes searching on a map to find a grave — all of these things involve some physical exertion and heighten the experience. Last, remembering loved ones at the place of their final resting spot, does something to cement familial bonds, as well as give perspective that, well, we’re all going to die someday, too. It’s sobering in a meaningful and uplifting way.

    We’ve taken our kids to visit several cemeteries and it’s usually been a very good experience, even if we have to sometimes remind them not to run around like a bunch of monkies. I think it does even the little ones a service to know that, sometimes, there are times and places in this world where our sense of connection to those that went before requires a little sobriety and quiet.

    As for taking photos, as you once pointed out, Ardis, pictures taken at graves look like a family portrait with the stone standing in for the missing family member.

    Comment by Hunter — December 10, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  9. I have mixed feelings about visiting graves. Not any negative ones, but after the deaths of my parents, it became quite clear to me that the essence of who they were had departed their mortal tabernacles, and was elsewhere. Visiting graves with relatives gives you a chance to talk about them with others, but visiting by myself, alone, does not hold much attraction. It’s nice when it includes the socialization. I have visited my parents graves a number of times since, but infrequently, as they are buried in Highland, Utah, and we live in Washington State.

    A member of my ward and his wife served as senior missionaries at the Winter Quarters/Council Bluffs temple visitors center while it was being constructed, and as a retired architect, was given some extra responsibilities, which included dragging a sled with ground-penetrating radar through the cemetery there, trying to locate some lost graves that were not well recorded in the records there. It’s an interesting story I should get him to write down.

    Comment by kevinf — December 10, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

  10. I have not found any cemetery more inspiring than the Old Pioneer Cemetery of Nauvoo. I even have a favorite headstone. The place, surrounded with large trees, is peaceful, a little isolated, infrequently visited, and very spiritual. The cemetery reminds me of my Mormon heritage, the sacrifices of the pioneers, and even the sacrifices that I must make. I do NOT look forward to death, but I do not fear it either.

    Comment by S.Faux — December 13, 2009 @ 8:04 am

  11. What a great story to pass down to your family Ardis. Thank you for sharing this story and guiding me to my Messinger linage that links me to the same Whiting family in Springville, UT that we share.

    Comment by Blake Messinger — January 14, 2010 @ 5:21 am

  12. Ardis,

    I am wondering how you might be related to Oscar Juan Whiting. May Whiting was the great, great aunt of Oscar Juan Whiting. Oscar Juan Whiting is my husbands grandfather. He went on the excursion you spoke of in the account to visit May’s grave when he was 12 years old. He remembered this experience very well and took his own children (my mother-in-law) back to also visit.

    Julie Adair Doman
    (married to Clay Whiting Doman)

    Here is the fantatsic twist to the story… George Washington Adair, mentioned in May Whiting’s story above, is my relative! What a joy to read and find not only more information about my husband’s Aunt May, but that the nephew of my 4th great grandfather helped the Whiting family before and after May’s death.

    Comment by Julie Doman — June 7, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

  13. Julie, I have no known family connection to anybody in this piece unless you count “sister in the gospel” as a family connection. This is a Mormon history blog where I write about any Mormon story that strikes my fancy. I’m very glad that you found the article — it’s interesting to me to hear that a living person remembers this excursion. Certainly May has not been forgotten!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 7, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

  14. Ardis-

    What were your sources for the two quotes given in connection with the account of May Whiting’s grave?

    ECO

    Comment by Eric Olson — December 17, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  15. Eric, I generally don’t post citations — I earn my living as a paid researcher of Mormon history, and posting citations generally results in my work being absorbed into other people’s writings without credit or benefit. I realize that my declining to cite sources is problematic, though, and appreciate that regular readers have come to trust that I have adequate sources for the stories I tell.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 17, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  16. I have seen these quotes in the Claire Christensen book at pages 405 and 406 but they were not footnoted there either so I have no idea re: existence or reliability of the source. Also, Mary Cox Whiting records in her history that it was Jedediah Adair’s family that took them in at House Rock. Both George Washington Adairs appear to have resided elsewhere at the time but it would be interesting to know if there is a further source indicating to the contrary. I did not see a cite to the contrary in my review of the Christensen book. Didn’t mean to pry on the sources but as I am trying to write a short bio of Mary Elizabeth Cox Whiting and the sum total of the sources appear to be of the family history variety, it is rather tough to meet minimal academic standards or follow up on accounts. Thanks for responding. ECO

    Comment by Eric Olson — December 21, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  17. It’s a fair question, Eric, and a legitimate expectation to want writers to cite their sources. I’ve just never found a way to do that while protecting my livelihood, short of not writing in a casual medium like blogging at all.

    Check your email.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 21, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

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