I have an uneasy relationship with death.
I live across the street from the cemetery, so death stares at me as soon as I open my blinds each morning. And, of course, some people have up and died on me–mostly older people, which I found difficult but acceptable; four people my own age, which I found quite upsetting, no doubt because of some harmful over-identification; and a small handful of children or babies, which I found utterly tragic and almost intolerable. It was probably the last set that sparked my interest in nineteenth-century LDS womenâ€™s death poetry.
I donâ€™t know what I expected to find in Exponent poetry, but whatever I expected to find wasnâ€™t what I did. Scholars have typically argued that LDS theology and the LDS community were quite reconciled to death from Joseph Smithâ€™s time onward. With our all-encompassing belief in eternal life, eternal families and the continuation of relationships, there seems to be little room for mourning and grief. Desperation equates with lack of faith.
One nineteenth-century anonymous poet mirrors such sentiments in tactless but straightforward terms. To those who have â€œLoved and Loss,â€ the author says:
â€œAnd this we call a loss! O selfish sorrow
Of selfish hearts! O we of little faith.â€
That sounds harsh to me. It goes right along with Margaret A. Whiteâ€™s address to Isabel Hamilton (and yes, the author names her friend explicitly): â€œSister give thy baby up,â€ because, after all, there is no need to â€œmourn to lay him down/When he his work hath done.â€
Such poems matchâ€”in more insensitive words than I ever hope to useâ€”the doctrine I know and love. Death is a mere stepping stone to another life, where (if I and they are worthy) I will continue all my relationships, where I will be myself but better, and where sorrow and hardship and the stupid things of life will be left behind. What is to mourn in that?
Ah, but then there is reality. I have watched people crumple to the ground and sob by a fresh grave for hours on end. I have seen those who have no more tears simply kneel and stare, and then come back day after day to do the same. Since I live in Provo, I can assume with over 90% accuracy that I am watching a weeping member of my own religion.
I was surprised to find such grief expressed openly by 1870s LDS women in published poetry. One author found comfort in the â€œHouse of the Lord,â€ but only after confessing:
â€œI felt the grave was a haven
A refuge from grief and despair . . .
O how I wished I was there.â€
Others expressed suicidal devastation in more veiled terms and still others simply lived on in an agonized present:
â€œThe years go by, the years go by,
I see them pass without a sigh. . . .
What now is all this world to me
But tasteless, dull monotony?â€
I find myself both caught and comforted by LDS doctrine. We are hopefully more sensitized to feelings than those of an earlier era, but the doctrine is the same. Is there room in LDS doctrine for mourning? Devastation? Even desperation? We are obviously supposed to have charity for others, â€œto mourn with those that mourn.â€ How is that reconciled with faith and testimony?
When a friendâ€™s baby died a few weeks before his due date, I did find hope in believing he was alive somewhere, waiting to be Matt and Joyâ€™s baby in the millennium. But I also found great comfort in knowing that even Eliza R. Snow, that paragon of strength, recognized the almost unendurable pain caused by death:
â€œIâ€™ve had a taste of mortal suffering:
Iâ€™ve seen my fellows drink its cup fillâ€™d to
The brim and running oâ€™er, until the pulse
Of life was cloggâ€™d in every wheelâ€”until
Natureâ€™s deep agonies, outweighâ€™d the love
Of Life, and yet the throbbing pulse beat on.â€
Jesus wept when Lazarus died. I guess my question is why. Was he mourning with those who mourned? Weeping for Mary and Martha and those left behind? Could he have been weeping for himself? Even if He knew perfectly that He would raise Lazarus from the dead in a mere moment? Can those with faith mourn?