Literary DCGD #39: The Records of Our Dead

October 13, 2013 | no comments
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Lula Greene RichardsThe doctrine of baptism for the dead is unique to Mormonism among religions today. Our focus on performing ordinances on behalf of those who haven’t been part of the Church in this life leads us to genealogical research to discover enough information to distinguish between individuals, and sometimes even allowing us to discover who our ancestors were—what kind of people they were and what were they like.

While our family history efforts are rightly focused on getting temple work done for our ancestors, we should find value also in getting to know those ancestors, and in that way building eternal relationships with them. The records they left behind are the key to doing this, as the following poem illustrates.

Its author, Lula Greene Richards, was a granddaughter of John P. Greene and grandniece of Brigham Young. Born in Kanesville, Iowa in 1849, she grew up in Salt Lake City and in Smithfield, Utah (near Logan). In 1871, while attending the University of Deseret, she submitted a poem to the Salt Lake Daily Herald in order to earn fare to return home when a family member unexpectedly became ill. The Herald’s owner, impressed with Richards, offered her the position of editor of a new women’s publication, the Women’s Exponent. When she accepted, Richards became, at age 23, the first woman periodical editor in Utah and among Mormons. She resigned in 1877, but later became an editor at the Juvenile Instructor. She continued to write poetry which was published in all of the major Mormon periodicals of her day, up until her death in 1944 at age 95.

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The Records of Our Dead

By Lula Greene Richards

They sleep! And peaceful is their rest,
And sacred every spot of ground
Upon our common mother’s breast
Wherein their thousand graves are found.
And sacred, too, the resting place
Of some beneath the ocean’s storms, –
For not alone in earth’s embrace
Are pillowed all their precious forms.

 

What treasured wealth their records show –
Important every name and date.
As thus their lives we learn to know,
What reverence these lives create!
As carefully the leaves we turn,
Search references with eager eyes,
Our sympathies awakened yearn
O’er far removed yet kindred ties.

 

As back we follow family names,
Still in our generation known,
For former heroes, fancy claims,
Traits which are present heroes own;
Thus all the way we seem to find,
As link by link the chain we trace,
Man’s noble bearing, generous mind,
Or woman’s purity and grace.

 

For here as at the funeral pall,
The failings mortal weakness brings,
We would not, where we might, recall,
But pass them by for better things.
How bright and clean, how free from sin,
Would we our chronicles have spread,
When other hands shall write them in
The sacred records of the dead.

 

All this – and this is but a part, –
As Malachi of old discerned,
Elijah came, and heart to heart
Fathers and children have been turned.
And now, in temples of the Lord
Vicarious work the Saints pursue,
And still in other books record.

Relief Society Magazine, v6 n9,
September, 1919, p. 497.

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I like Richards’ initial imagery, linking the sleep of the dead to the breast of mother earth. It hints at a different relationship to the earth than most of us have, an understanding that through the earth we have the sustenance of life.

Her overall point, however, first appears in the second stanza, where the records of those who sleep are examined. Richards sees in them not only the data needed to perform temple work, but a conduit to not only understanding our ancestors, but empathizing with them:

As thus their lives we learn to know,
What reverence these lives create!
As carefully the leaves we turn,
Search references with eager eyes,
Our sympathies awakened yearn
O’er far removed yet kindred ties.

But Richards also shows the beliefs of her age, when she suggests in the fourth stanza that the weaknesses of our ancestors should be minimized:

The failings mortal weakness brings,
We would not, where we might, recall,
But pass them by for better things.

Her point seems to be one of emphasis, rather than dishonesty about the past, and that viewpoint is likely shared by many even today. Still, I wonder if that view isn’t the slippery ground that leads to hagiography instead of true biography. The point of learning about our ancestors isn’t hero worship, it is to get to know who they were and who they might be now.

Regardless, Richards rightly points out that the point is expressed in Malachi’s statement that “heart to heart / Fathers and children have been turned” and that while the vicarious work of the Temple is the end of this research, if our hearts are truly turned towards our ancestors, we will want to know more about them.

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