On August the third, 1908, the brothers Jean and Amédée Bouyssonie entered a lonely cave in the Sourdoire Valley of France. For three years they had carefully excavated over 1000 Neanderthal artifacts, however on this day the brothers uncovered a nearly complete 50,000 year old Neanderthal skeleton which they described as being carefully buried in a sleeping position, legs bent with head tilted over the chest and surrounded by flint tools and animal bones.
It was shocking at the time to think that a species other than our own would have the capacity to ritualize death through intentional burial.
For over 100 years most archeologists dismissed their analysis because not only were the brothers archeologists, but they were Catholic priests. Because of their ties to religion, skeptics felt they had applied modern Homo Sapien religious bias into their interpretation.
In 1999 French researchers revisited the site and, after 13 years of renewed excavations, concluded that indeed the brothers were correct. Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead. In 2012 this conclusion was only one small piece in a growing body of modern archeological evidence demonstrating that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought and developing rich cultures, including the rich culture of death rituals.
In 2016 archeologists found blackened hearths within a dolomite hillside in Spain surrounding a spot where the jaw and six teeth of a child were found in the stony sediment. Puzzlingly, within each of these hearths was the horn or antler of a herbivore, apparently carefully placed there. In total, there were 30 horns from aurochs and bison as well as red deer antlers, and a rhino skull nearby.
Archaeologists believe the fires may have been lit as some sort of funeral ritual around where the Neanderthal toddler, known as the Lozoya Child, was placed around 38,000 to 42,000 years ago.
This is one of many cavernous spaces discovered throughout the realm of the Neanderthal that do not appear to be arranged as one would expect it if it had been a dwelling. Such spaces appear to be of ritual and symbolic significance. It is a space where it appears Neanderthals would gather to specifically mourn and remember the dead.
Like the Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo Sapiens have a rich history of creating rituals and spaces to mourn and remember our dead. The first Homo Sapien burials date to about 90-100,000 years ago, where science can accurately say artifacts were intentionally placed into burial sites along with the dead. By the time Homo Sapiens immigrated into Neanderthal territory we had our own simple death rituals on par with our Neanderthal neighbors.
In the Upper Paleolithic period 34,000 years ago, we begin to see an explosion of very complex Homo Sapien mortuary behavior which continued to evolve to modern day practices. Today Homo Sapiens have elaborate symbolic death rituals and have created ornate dedicated spaces to honor and remember the dead, each unique and specialized for every pocket of human culture
One pathway of the Homo Sapien ritualization of death snakes its way through Judeao-Christian culture. This is interesting to consider, because this is where Mormonism roots itself as it adds its own unique contribution to the long line of Homo Sapien death rituals and spaces. As Mormons we are not as unique as we may think from our ancestors and neighbor hominids.
Our ritual spaces for remembering the dead may not be caves, nor even the cavernous cathedrals adorned with a dead Christ on a tree; but holy temples.
We may no longer be buried with bones and flint, our bodies covered in ocher; but we are clothed in temple robes for burial, endowed with tokens to pass the angels to enter into the presence of God.
In considering the Judeo-Christian death culture, of which Mormonism is a part, it brings us to one particular interesting evolution of Homo Sapien death ritualization: The personification of Death. Many cultures personify death and each is a fascinating look into what death means to the Homo Sapien family. However, I will touch on just a few to contextualize specific examples of the Mormon personification of Death.
Death as a Destroying Angel
Death personified as a destroying angel makes many appearances in Old Testament times. In Exodus, as the Lord passes through Egypt to smite the first born of every household, he forbids the destroyer (shâchath) to enter any house if there is sacrificial blood on the lintel and two side posts of the door. This pass over by Death is still celebrated to this day.
In 1 Chronicles, King David sees the angel of death standing between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. The Jewish Targum expands this account by acknowledging that as God sent the angel of death to destroy Jerusalem, he beheld the ashes of the binding of Isaac at the foot of the altar, and he remembered his covenant with Abraham and he turned in his Word from the evil which he designed to do unto them; and he said to the destroying angel, “Cease,” thus sparing Jerusalem.
Interestingly, there are many named angels of death in the Abrahamic religions. In Jewish lore, Samael is the main archangel of death. He is seen as both good and evil and remains one of God’s servants even though he condones the sins of man. Sometimes the name of Satan is accorded to him. While Michael defends Israel’s actions, Satan tempts the people to sin.
In some traditions it is Samael that Jacob wrestles with all night and when Jacob finally overpowers Samael at daybreak, he commands the angel of death to bless him.
The personification of Death as a destroyer continues in Mormon lore.
In 1831 as the Prophet Joseph Smith and ten elders traveled down the Missouri River in canoes, they experienced many dangers. Elder William W. Phelps, in a daylight vision, saw the destroyer riding in power upon the face of the waters. Smith had a revelation concerning this destroyer that Phelps saw which became section 61 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
On December 6, 1832, the Savior told the Prophet Joseph Smith that angels are crying unto Him day and night “who are ready and waiting to be sent forth to reap down the fields.” (Doctrine and Covenants 86:4-7)
Additionally, Mormons who obey the Word of Wisdom by abstaining from coffee, tea, tobacco, and harmful drugs while eating in a healthy manner, are given a promise by the Lord that, “the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:21)
Death as a Friend
In Catholic tradition the archangel Michael is the angel of death. He supervises human death and escorts the righteous to heaven. In early Christian art he is depicted weighing souls on a scale, a death ritual not found in Christian scripture but borrowed from the Egyptians.
From the Requiem Mass:
Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory,
deliver the souls of all the faithful departed
from the pains of Hell
and the bottomless pit.
Deliver them from the jaws of the lion,
lest hell engulf them,
lest they be plunged into darkness;
but let the holy standard-bearer Michael
lead them into the holy light,
as once you promised to Abraham
and to his seed.
Protestants do not necessarily personify Michael as death, but give death a more generic personage as a hooded figure in a flowing robe that often carries a scythe traditionally used for reaping fields of grain.
Regardless of the personification, from the beginning Christians sought to befriend death. The central tenant of Christianity removes the sting of death through the good news that Jesus Christ overcame death. In living a prescribed life of righteousness in some traditions or by simply confessing Christ as your Savior in others, you will greet death as a friend.
The German painter Alfred Rethel (1816-1859) best known for his work illustrating Old Testament scenes began a series of woodcuts in 1848 with Death as the central character. One of his characterizations was based on the popular personification of Death as a friend found in many legends and stories.
In this illustration an old bell ringer sits in his chair having tolled many a passing day. However, it is Death who now works the ropes to mark a new day. The artist Rethel shows that Death came a long way to do his job, because he wears the cockle shell of a pilgrim. The old man seems to go in peace as the bell tolls and Rethel places symbols around the man indicating he lived a pious life: Christ watches over him from the Cross; his bible is open; the jug and bread suggest that he has kept Communion. From the old man’s belt hangs a ring of keys, a symbol of orderliness. Indeed, from his tower dwelling, it seems a short step to heaven for the old bell ringer.
In modern contemporary life we see the “death as a friend” motif in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In the story of The Three Brothers, three wizard brothers are traveling together. When they reach a treacherous river, they simply conjure a bridge. As they begin to cross over the river in safety, they meet the personification of Death who is angry for losing three potential victims. Death is cunning and pretends to be impressed by them. He grants each a wish as a reward for outwitting him.
The first brother asks for an extremely powerful wand — and so he is given the Elder Wand.
The second brother asks for the power to bring people back to life and is handed the resurrection stone.
The third brother did not trust Death. So he asked for something that would enable him to go forth from that place without being followed by Death. And Death, most unwillingly, handed over his own Cloak of Invisibility.
When the two older brothers used their gifts given them by Death, Death was able to easily find them and take them for his own.
“But though Death searched for the third brother for many years, he was never able to find him. It was only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took off the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son. And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”
In Mormonism’s personification of Death as a Friend, Death literally becomes your friends and family who come to receive you at the moment of your passing.
After a painful illness that lasted five days, on August 29, 1877 Brigham Young’s daughter Zina reports that he was taken from his canopy bed and placed before an open window in the Beehive House where he could get better air: “He seemed to partially revive, and opening his eyes, he gazed upward, exclaiming: ‘Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!’ This name was the last word he uttered upon his death.
In 1856 President Jedediah M. Grant died of pneumonia at the young age of forty while serving in the First Presidency with Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. In his funeral remarks, Heber C. Kimball conveyed a conversation he had with Jedediah as he lay dying.
Heber recounted that Jedediah saw his wife; she was the first person that came to him. He saw many that he knew, but did not have conversation with any except his wife Caroline. She came to him, and he said that she looked beautiful and she had their little child, who died out on the plains during their trek to Utah, in her arms. Caroline said, “Mr. Grant, here is little Margaret; you know that the wolves ate her up, but it did not hurt her; here she is all right.”
In modern times some of the most sacred anecdotal stories held in Mormonism are the thousands upon thousands of personal family stories of spouses and relatives who are dead, being present for the passing of a loved one. At the moment of my Grandmother’s death she identified loved ones who had preceded her in death who were in the room with her. She lovingly spoke to them as she left mortality.
Unique Manifestations of Two Mormon Death Personifications
Mormonism has two particular personifications of Death unique to our religion. One is a dreadful relic of our past that has slowly morphed into a legend that we still morbidly whisper upon one another. The second unique personification of Death is a surprising result of the church transforming into its Wealth and Corporate Power era.
Death as a Savior
This is a truly frightening personification of death that arose during the Mormon Reformation in 1856. The years leading up to the Reformation were full of intense trials for the saints. Extreme drought caused every mountain stream that fed the Salt Lake valley to run dangerously low. Swarms of grasshoppers and crickets destroyed what fields could be planted. Amid this drought the valley was inundated by a flood of new converts from Europe who descended upon the Utah Territory’s still undeveloped and drought stricken community. Flour was scarce and food shortages plentiful.
Spurred by this period of intense trials and hardship, Brigham Young felt it was time for the saints to wholly reject sin and turn towards spiritual things. He sent out his counselors and apostles to preach fire and brimstone to prepare the members of the church for the full practice of “celestial law” in the Utah Territory prior to the Second Coming of Christ, which Brigham suspected would be soon.
During this time the most conservative and reactionary elements of LDS Church doctrine dominated the public discussions and extreme Mormon orthodoxy permeated the culture. Although the doctrine of blood atonement was developed in the 1840s and early 1850s, it fully blossomed during the Mormon Reformation.
Blood atonement is a controversial doctrine that taught some crimes are so heinous that the atonement of Jesus does not apply. Instead, to atone for these sins, the perpetrators should be killed in a way that would allow their blood to be shed upon the ground as a sacrificial offering. Blood atonement was not to be used as a way to punish, but as a way for the sinner to make restitution for their sins. It was a benevolent saving act.
Therefore Death became a Savior.
Who could this personification of Death save?
- Covenant breakers who have committed sin that cannot be forgiven through baptism
- A person overtaken by a “gross fault”
- A white man who belongs to the chosen seed and mixes his blood with the seed of Cain
The Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred in September of 1857 and in March of 1877 John D. Lee was executed for his role in the murders. Lee’s blood was shed on the ground where the massacre had taken place 20 years earlier. After Lee’s execution Brigham Young was asked if he believed in blood atonement. Young replied, “I do, and I believe that Lee has not half atoned for his great crime.”
Some of the harshest concepts of the reformation were criticized by church members, including the doctrine of blood atonement. Finally in 1889 President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto formally repudiating the practice of blood atonement and the Apostle B.H. Roberts denied that the zealous words of the Brethren were ever actually carried out.
Unfortunately this was not the end of blood atonement. Accusations that it was still practiced and taught peppered the 20th century all the way to 1978 when the church again formally repudiated the doctrine of blood atonement.
Over the years this bloody personification of Death may have forfeited his gruesome methods of the Mormon reformation, but he was still furiously in search of sinners to save. Even though his strategies have changed, he still operates in the church on the principle that it is more charitable to sacrifice a life than to see one endure eternal torment in the afterlife.
For example, Death as a Savior was invoked during the Mormon chastity campaigns of the late 20th century.
“There is no true Latter-day Saint who would not rather bury a son or a daughter than to have him or her lose his or her chastity – realizing that chastity is of more value than anything else in all the world.” (Prophet Heber J. Grant, Gospel Standards, complied by G. Homer Durham, p. 55)
“It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” (Spencer W. Kimball, LDS Prophet, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 196)
President David O. McKay: Your virtue is worth more than your life. Please, young folk, preserve your virtue even if you lose your lives.”(The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 63)
“I know what my mother expects. I know what she’s saying in her prayers. She’d rather have me come home dead than unclean.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 1967, pp. 51-55)
Like the early saints who criticized the harsh rhetoric of the Mormon reformation, contemporary members of the church completely rejected these death teachings about virtue and soundly stripped Death from delivering salvation through the reaping of souls who were fooling around or worse, being sexually assaulted or abused.
So what is Death as a Savior up to today? Even though he is a shadow of his former self, he fervently works in the LDS LGBTQ community.
A friend of mine shared with me his distress when his mother wrote to him last month that she wished he was dead rather than married to his husband and live as an apostate.
Mari Burningham tells SB Nation that when she came out in 2003 while she was as an assistant volleyball coach at BYU, she not only realized she needed to leave BYU, but that she needed to leave Utah because “I couldn’t be in Utah where our church leaders had already said that it is better to be dead than gay and called homosexuals an abomination.”
Andrew Evans, “The Black Penguin” author and National Geographic journalist, told the Chicago times that as a seventh generation Mormon and gay “there were times people would tell me I was better off dead. These are not things you say to a young person suffering.”
In speaking with Linda Swayne, an active transgender Mormon, she made an interesting point about Death being a savior for the transgender. She states that the attempted suicide rate is high in the transgender community, 41%. For her, it wasn’t that others thought she would be better off dead than to transition, but it was her own thoughts that she was better off dead in order to save her spouse and everyone she loves from “all of this.”
Unfortunately these stories are common. Concerning the LDS LGBTQ, Carol Lynn Pearson told the East Bay Times that, “In truth, many have banished their children from the family home, or bluntly announced they would be better off dead.
As a Mormon culture we may have transitioned this personification of Death away from being a blood avenging frontier savior, but in his transformations over the past 100 years, he now hovers over the church listening to us whisper death upon the LDS LGBTQ as if this was the most benevolent and kind thing we could do to one another.
Just stop it!
The time has come to fully understand that when we wish Death upon any LGBTQ member, we are invoking an ugly and bloody ghost from the Mormon Reformation.
Twice the First Presidency formally disavowed this savior angel of Death. It is time to vanquish this particular personification of Death to the historical obscurity it deserves. The First Presidency, emphatically states that the ONLY blood atonement is the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
LDS LGBTQ members, Christ wants you alive. His atonement is sufficient for you. Your sexual orientation and gender identity is not a sin requiring any kind of atoning for. For anyone to say otherwise is treason to God and Church.
Death the Bureaucrat
For me this is the most fascinating personification of Death we have in the church. This apparition has risen to prominence in the Church’s age of wealth and corporate power where he is currently seen as shaping the policies on the LDS LGBTQ.
Last week an inflammatory blog post made the rounds in Mormon social media claiming that the Mormon position on gay marriage is stronger that you would think, in fact it is invincible.
It was a poorly thought out piece. What it lacked in logic it made up for in patronizing bigotry. Bottom line: Straights love each other! Gays love each other! HOWEVER… romantic attachment is a dangerous foundation for marriage. Don’t expect the Church to place the doctrine of Eternal Marriage on the fickle foundation of romantic interests. Marriage is a revelatory duty for heteros only!
The content of the post is not the point here, but with its 11.4 K shares it brought out all sides of the same sex marriage debate in full force. On Randal Bowen’s public Facebook thread the heated discussion boiled down to “The Church will never change on this issue” to which Nadine McCombs Hansen countered, “Yes. Of course it will change. Just like it has changed so many times before. The top guys right now will never change. But they are old and after they die the younger guys will change it.”
This is Death the Bureaucrat. When leaders in a lifetime appointment are seen as unchanging, immovable, and opinionated; Death is the only option for change.
As members we, knowingly or unknowingly, invest in Death the power to make important changes to doctrine and policy by who he removes from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Like a manager who hires and fires, Death drives the corporate culture of the church.
Over at Zelophehad’s Daughters probability tables have continued to run since 2009 showing the likelihood of each member of the 15 actually becoming President of the church based on life expediencies published in the CDC’s Division of Vital Statistics.
Here we can either be happy or sad that Bednar has a 67% chance of becoming President and Uchtdorf 37%. So far we can expect 9.5 years of a Nelson/Oaks presidential dynasty.
But Death has been known to surprise us.
Harold B. Lee was a vigorous and healthy individual when he became President of the Church on July 7, 1972. Having spearheaded correlation, he was seen as a strong President who would be around for a very long time and make a lasting imprint on the church. Certainly he would outlive many of the apostles, including a sickly Spencer W. Kimball.
Harold B. Lee was also one of the most stubborn and outspoken opponents of civil rights of all the Brethren. Gregory A. Prince writes in “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” that Lee favored banning blacks from BYU and most interestingly that he vowed to exclude blacks from the priesthood for as long as he lived.
It was a complete shock when he unexpectedly died seventeen months later on December 26, 1973.
Spencer W. Kimball became president of the church on December 30, 1973. In 1978, unencumbered by public discriminatory stances, Kimball received the revelation extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church.
What role did Death the Bureaucrat have in shaping this change?
We sure give lots of power to death as we wait around for his bureaucratic management shuffling. Today in the new civil rights movement we have become a despondent people waiting for the right people to die so that changes to policies of the LDS LGBTQ population can occur.
Often Death the Bureaucrat is seen as the agent who will be responsible for erasing the apostate label for LGB who are same sex married. He will allow the transgender to change their name on church records. He will rule that the transgender can choose to attend Relief Society or Priesthood according to their identity. He will erase the need for a church court for those who same-sex marry. He will welcome the children of same sex couples to the waters of baptism at age eight. We just have to wait to see who gets the pink slip.
This is passively morbid! For a living church that believes in continuing revelation we sure invest a lot of power in Death the Bureaucrat. This is a sad commentary on our confidence in continuing revelation. Revelation is such an active and vibrant concept. Death is wholly passive.
The LDS LGBTQ are exiting the church in record numbers because we have created a hostile environment for their health and well-being by invoking both Death the Savior and Death the Bureaucrat to interact with them.
These two unique Mormon personifications of death are unhealthy. They need to be immediately exiled from our church culture to the trash heap of other Homo Sapien Death personification rejects.
We are a better people than to let death decide our future.
A very thought provoking article. Thank you Nathan for being brave enough to state this openly.