Day of the Dead, Lord of Life

cross posted at Civil Religion

“Death be not proud,” taunted John Donne. “One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” Death interrupts our view of eternity, a fearsome jalousie obscuring a future we must approach. Like Donne, we console and distract ourselves by turns with bravado, with pleasure, with laughter and—finally, always—with God. Peter Berger, eminent sociologist of religion, wrote that “the power of religion depends, in the last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk, inevitably, toward it.”

Religion masters death by writing it into the second act of a cosmic drama of the soul. For Christians, the principal figure in this drama is Jesus, whose own death and resurrection conquered death for all. The glory of this victory, and its appalling price, is the great source and subject of Western art. Last year I sang with the Webster University Choral Society in a performance of the Brahms Requiem. At the mighty climax of the musical drama, Brahms sets the text from 1 Corinthians 15:55 to a thundering rhythm, and together we sang: “Tod, wo ist dein stachel? Holle, wo ist dein sieg?” O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?* (It sounds better in German.) The question is taken up by Mack Wilberg, a Mormon composer, whose own Requiem answers Brahms with John 11:15-26 at its climax, “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

Different Christian traditions impart their own tonal colors to the majesty of Christ’s victory. For Mormons, the promise of the physical restoration of the body, a literal resurrection from the dead, is a comforting theme: “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.” This attention to the physical detail of the body, its organic integrity, emphasizes Christ’s total triumph over the grave. And this detailed account of resurrection is prelude to a detailed picture of the afterlife, in which families are reunited to live and love in a perfect union of souls unmarked by the temporary alienation of death. Death, be not proud!

Ultimately, it is not the event of death that engages Mormon attention so much as the dead themselves. It is not only our conviction that the family withstands death, but also the sense that our own salvation through Christ is bound up in the salvation of our kindred dead. This animates our interest in family history, makes the names and stories of our progenitors alive in our own, motivates our anxious engagement in the recovery and preservation of our genealogies. Death is the dark mirror that reveals one’s deepest image of the soul. When Mormons look into that dark mirror, they see not the self alone, but an exultation of souls moving forward into perfect community with Christ.

*Skip ahead to about 5:00 if you want to get straight to the drama.

3 comments for “Day of the Dead, Lord of Life

  1. October 30, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    There is a cool painting from the recent Church art contest that depicts a Mexican woman going to the cemetary for Day of the Dead, holding both some marigolds (traditional flowers) and her Book of Mormon. I think that Mormon ideas about death and celebrating the family mesh well with the traditions of many cultures that honor and remember ancestors. In mainstream America that isn’t quite as strong of a tradition. While serving a mission I noticed that some of my companions were surprised by the ease in which many accepted the idea that we believe that family bonds continue beyond the grave; even if their religion does not explicitly teach it, for many people it seems to be a given.

    Last year my daughter attended a Spanish-language immersion school, and I teach Spanish, so we have incorporated a bit of Day of the Dead into our family celebrations. Sunday I will probably cook some of the favorite foods of my grandparents and we will look at their pictures and talk about family history. If we lived closer to any cemetaries where they are buried I would pay a visit, but we have to do that during the summer when we are on vacation.

  2. October 31, 2009 at 11:06 am

    We celebrate as well. One good thing about living in San Diego is that you can find genuine sugar skulls. I think it’s a very Mormon holiday — turning the hearts of the children to the fathers.

  3. Russ Frandsen
    October 31, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    You always write so wonderfully. You have such breadth of knowledge of art, history and literature. Please write a book!

    Russ Frandsen

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