Distinctions in the Mormon Approach to Death and Dying

Truman G. Madsen

Truman G. Madsen, “Distinctions in the Mormon Approach to Death and Dying,” in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 61–76.

This symposium corroborates a recent essay on “Dying with Dignity” that reports a “crescendo of concern” about dying and death. [1] The concern shows up in books, journals, conferences, television programs, societies. Yet, at the same time, it is observed that, whereas the facts of life were hidden from youth in a former generation, the facts of death seem to be a conversational taboo today. How does one reconcile this deliberate avalanche of discussion and studied silence?

A score of writers would argue that this paradox arises because we try to make death a “thing” outside of us—vague, anonymous, removed—an escape from the gnawing awareness in all of us that we must die. Our preoccupation can be deliberately ignored as it is in silence, or it can emerge in all kinds of brave verbal objectifications.

If Latter-day Saints are unimpressed by these trends, it is not due, I suspect, to isolation or insulation from the real world. It is because there are root assurances that go deep and overbeliefs that go high; these preside over and temper all of our attitudes. In this paper I wish to address ten such roots of Mormon assurance which are powerful in their patterning effect.

My title uses the word “distinctions.” The first question is, are the distinctions distinctive? In three ways they are not: First, if one looks deeply into historic religions, he can find precedent, parallel, and in some cases identity in the teachings of this dispensation and those of former ones. Second, the response to death, both in individuals and in institutions, undergoes change. Our great-grandfathers may have had significantly different attitudes about death, though they belonged to the same or a most similar religious movement. Third, the doctrinal or teaching core of the Church on this theme is overlaid with multiple ever-expanding cultures. Many of the variable customs and traditions of other cultures may or may not be harmonious with this gospel outlook but continue to have residual influence on the convert.


One striking insight in the Mormon scriptures on death is that there are many kinds. The word itself is often used in the plural, “deaths,” in exact juxtaposition to the word “lives.” The point here is not simply that there are many ways of reaching the final event of mortality, it is, rather, that while we are more or less alive here, there are many possible dyings. Without being too precise, one finds in the scriptures at least four characterizations of death: (1) Death is absence from the presence of God. (2) Death is the wages of sin—the loss of life intensity. It is, for example, darkness of mind, hardness of heart and numbness of conscience. These are the deaths in the self which may precede death of the body. The deceased is diseased spiritually. (3) Death is the separation of the spirit from the body. (4) Death is the discontinuation of life powers. This is the opposite of what Section 132 calls “the fullness and continuation of the seeds”—a delimitation on creative and procreative power.

The role of Christ is to overcome all of these deaths in us, both as prevention and redemption. To gain victory over every form of death is the essence of life. Preoccupation with the third kind, the event, is a sign of confusion: soul-sickness. “Salvation consists in overcoming all one’s enemies. The last enemy is death.”

Death and God

In the world’s major religions, the question of God and the question of immortality are often separate: one may affirm the one and deny the other. Belief in immortality has never been strong among the Jews, for example, yet belief in God has been vigorous. Among philosophers, Charles Hartshorne is not alone in affirming a life-giving and fully perfected God who not only permits but requires that man disappear forever. On the other hand, there are those who affirm immortality and deny God. Scientists today, by no means mad scientists, seriously reach for the dream of Ponce de Leon. Some say we will be capable of immortality before the turn of the century. We may even opt to die with tentative rights for a rerun on the demand of our survivors—blanking out for periods and blinking in for other periods. Then the folk witticism would be practical: “If the rich could hire others to die, a poor man could make a living.” [2]

Mormonism, whatever the triumphs of the scientists, equates God, immortality, and resurrection. Life in its highest mode requires all three. There is a difference between surviving forever and living forever. One who achieves eternal life must have become like the eternal who has mastered life—he must be perfect.

What Death Does to Life

In contemporary discussion, opposite attitudes arise as one faces imminent death. For Martin Heidegger, man at his best is committed to whatever he does as Sein-zum-Tode—being unto death. For him, the consciousness of death at this level is intertwined with the sense of the passing of time, projects, and guilt. On different grounds, Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus affirm the essence of “living on the underground,” the constant threat of death as somehow leading to the existential virtue of authenticity. One is most alive when he is closest to death. On other grounds, Viktor Frankl recalls his prison camp experience as his clearest and closest understanding of love.

For Joseph Smith, death is indeed the outside limit and sometimes the cost of a Christ-like mission. There may be slow martyrdom, as when one “wastes and wears out his life” in bringing to light hidden things of darkness. “Be faithful, even if you should be slain,” he was told early. Or death may fulfill, atone, redeem. “Do not be alarmed, brethren, for they can only do what they did to the ancient saints. They can only kill the body.” To the degree that this statement of Joseph Smith in the menace of a mob comforted his brethren, they had caught the vision. But notice that for Joseph Smith death was not a mere incident because the body is cheap or worthless. Rather, it was because the body is finally indestructible. The quality of man’s resurrection depends upon his response to the way of Christ. To preserve the mortal body by betrayal of Christ is a death worse than death.

The Body as Enemy

In many religions, ancient and modern, the body is viewed as an impediment to the spiritual life, a prison or as Plato put it, “an outlandish slough,” a Gnostic prison. Among Buddhists the body or skhanda is finally recognized as inferior and even as unreal. So likewise in Christian Science. In the religions of escape in the Far East, persistence of life in the body is viewed as the extension of karma, a kind of punishment. And where the objective is not utter annihilation, the body is to be deprived and mortified but with the high aim to achieve the extinction of desire. In monastic Catholic traditions and pious Protestant ones, there is a similar effort, often ascribed to Paul, that takes initiative in asceticism. Gandhi expressed two world traditions, occidental and oriental, in saying he wished he had never experienced fleshly impulses.

Contrary to these views, much Greek philosophical theology, and the flesh-disparagements of Augustine and Calvin, Mormonism teaches:

1. That “we came into the world to receive a body and present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom.” That oppression in our pre-embodied condition arose because we lacked a body.

“All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.” [3]

As Joseph Smith put it, “The express purpose of God in giving it (the spirit) a tabernacle was to arm it against the power of darkness.” [4] And elsewhere he taught that unembodied intelligences did not have power to defend themselves against those that had a tabernacle. It is a privilege to be in the body, even a crippled, handicapped, diseased body.

2. That the purpose of life is not to transcend the flesh but to transform it. “The great principle of happiness consists in having a body.”

3. That a fulness of joy is impossible without the inseparable connection of spirit and body. “When separated man cannot receive a fulness of joy.” [5]

4. That we should improve the time of this mortal probation because, “A man can do as much in this life in one year as he can do in ten years in the spirit world without the body.” [6]

5. That the strong will to endure life, even in the midst of pain, has been divinely planted in us in order that we might cling to life and thus accomplish the designs of our Creator. So said Joseph Smith to Wilford Woodruff. [7]

6. That there is some truth in the comment, “The good die young,” because, as Joseph speculated, they are “too pure, too lovely to live upon the earth.” [8] Yet in the long view Joseph Smith taught, “I do not like to see a little child pass away, for it has not filled the measure of its creation and gained the victory over death.” [9] Children, of course, are innocent, but they are not experienced. They will yet have opportunities of reckoning in the flesh with experience and contrast, if only in the post-millennial struggle. They are assured salvation in the celestial kingdom, but only when they have fulfilled the conditions will they enjoy the highest exaltation.

7. That desire, fulfillment of desires and increased refinement of desire, are eternal processes.

8. That death as a separation process is an enemy. The spirit may properly crave death (due to the decline of age, disease, and the imprisoning effects of sin), but we will look upon the absence of our spirits from our bodies as “a bondage.” [10]

Selective vs. Universal Immortality

Many world religions hold that death is universal but that immortality is extremely selective, reserved for the elite, the few, the 144,000, the fit, the enlightened ones, or whatever. (Some religions deny that some men even have souls and have certainly excluded animals and the lower forms of life.) Joseph Smith said, “All are born to die. And all men must rise.” “All must enter eternity.” Man is not an endangered species.

As for other forms of life, Joseph Smith taught, “Every living thing that knows enough to run when you point your finger at it will be resurrected.” [11] That means not just beasts, fish, and birds; it means ants, beetles (of whom there are nine thousand known species), and mosquitoes. Joseph taught that John’s apocalypse speaks of beasts in heaven, not only in rich symbolisms, but in literal description: there are beasts in heaven. He taught, according to Benjamin F. Johnson, that all the animal kingdoms resurrected “would remain in the dominion and therefore the stewardship of those who, with creative power, reach out for dominion through the power of endless lives.” He expected, he said, to meet his black horse Joe Duncan and his faithful dog Major.

The Earth Glorified

If life is precious in animal form, it is also precious in plant and mineral. God commends all life. The earth itself is organic, somehow alive. In the sense of separation of spirit and body, it will eventually die. It will die, moreover, innocently. Unlike rebellious man, the earth flawlessly fills the measure of its creation—obeys the law of its organizer. Too often man has not replenished but exploited, not sanctified but polluted, not redeemed but corrupted the earth. The earth has been baptized by immersion, it will likewise be baptized in the Spirit by fire, be renewed to its paradisaical state, and glorified to a beauty beyond description. [12] It will then return to its position in the cosmos from which it was removed after the fall of man. It will be “rolled back into the presence of God.” Not the least but the most righteous will inherit it.

Thus the history of Mother Earth recapitulates the history of sanctified mankind. And it is a type, a foreshadowing, of more and more worlds that are more and more alive, abundant, and abounding. Christ and the resurrected Saints will reign upon it during the one thousand years, but not permanently, for they will thereafter “come and go, visiting and governing the earth.” So Edward L. Stevenson heard Joseph say. [13] The kinship of life and life will be complete. There will be no need for C. S. Lewis’s imaginative proposal for rewarding insects. “A heaven for mosquitoes could be combined with a hell for man.” Heaven will be the same for both.

Is all of Real Man Immortal?

lt is not uncommon in world religions to hold that only one aspect or fragment or faculty or mode of man will live on. For Plato, this is the immaterial soul. For Aristotle, it is <i>nous</i> or reason. For the Buddhists, it is the ultimate nature of the enlightened <i>bodhi</i> in a distinctionless nirvana. For the Christian Scientist, it is pure mind. Joseph Smith taught that all of real man is immortal: mind, spirit and body. Therefore the analogy of similarity between the conditions we know here and the conditions hereafter is thoroughgoing. But there are crucial differences. The most vital change between the present corruptible body and the incorrupt resurrection is that the glorified body will have within it not blood, but a spirit fluid. “Flesh and blood cannot go there, but flesh and bones quickened by the Spirit of God can.” [14] The notion of transmigration of souls or of successive mortal rebirths or of switching species was labeled by Joseph Smith as “a doctrine of the devil.” [15]

The doctrine is wrongheaded for three reasons: First, “All men must die and all must rise” (in their own bodies). This is the law. It cancels out all variations of doctrines of body switching or soul sleeping, as also of annihilation. Second, there is no crossover of kinds. Men do not become cockroaches, nor vice versa; sacred cows do not become gods. Our body, the body we have now in its essential elements is ours forever. The decision to accept embodiment was voluntary. Now that it is made, it is irreversible. Your body is as permanently yours as you are permanently you. Even the sons of perdition will be resurrected.

Third, there is only one mortal probation, and it is crucial. There are stages before and stages after, and one may indeed move in the cyclic spiral, but not in repetition and not in a circle. The seriousness, the risk, and the glories of mortal life are undercut the moment one supposes he will have a million or more subsequent probations of the same sort. It is a spurious comfort to be told, as was the weeping wife at the cremation of her husband in India, “Do not weep, he has been through this a million times before.” Physically and metaphysically that is impossible.

This also means that ontological suicide—the craving for annihilation—is a will-o’-the-wisp. The positive gospel message is: we must learn to live with ourselves.

The Quantity-Quality Controversy

Many who believe immortality is an illusion, religious humanists for example, insist that both suicide and euthanasia are a human right. If there is, as Freud taught, a death wish, some claim that it is more than a desire to end this predicament and indeed all predicaments; it is a desire for “the catastrophe which ends all catastrophe.” Will Durrant says in effect, that after writing thirty-five volumes, “eternal sleep will be welcome.” Other humanists argue that there is something hypocritical, spurious, or projective about the religious notion that one should live for the next life instead of for this one. Secular critics such as Marx and Feurbrach plead for living exclusively in the here and now.

No religion has been as effective as Mormonism in uniting the traditional split between the here and now and the then and there. The spirit and body are inseparably connected; so in the temples are heaven and earth; so are joy and sorrow; so are life and death. When Henry P. Van Dusen, President of Union Theological Seminary, and his wife committed suicide, some defended their right. But others, feeling this was a betrayal of both life and death, said sadly, “We do not read in the New Testament that man has a right, on his own, to decide when to lay down his cross.” Mormons share that conviction.

The Family As an Individual

Much of Judeo-Christian theology doubts or denies individual immortality: so do scientific materialists. The self is swallowed up in some cosmic reservoir, as absolute as in Bertrand Russell’s “vast, total death of the solar system.” Some have nevertheless offered the comfort of “social immortality.” This means that one is replicated in his posterity, or at least in the memory of friends.

We have observed that Joseph Smith teaches individual identity in perpetuity in both directions. In this sense, our individual immortality is in no way contingent on that of others. On the other hand, the highest immortality is a family affair. In that sense we are either exalted together or not at all. Thus, others are crucial to the quality and intensity of our own eternal lives. Husband and wife become “one” in their children. But parents are themselves linked to an unbroken chain of forebears. This is a clarification of the great Israelite insight that all Israel and ultimately all mankind stand accountable and privileged before God as one individual. We do not overcome what Joseph Smith called the “last enemy,” which is death, until we perceive that “they without us and we without them cannot be made perfect,” hence the indispensability of sealing in its highest, deepest sense. This is the core of truth in the oriental notion that our ancestors may both plague us and bless us. The positive truth is that to some extent they may redeem us as we them, and that our highest transformation is interwined with theirs.

We may miss this crucial point when we say that the resurrection is unconditional, but that redemption from sin is conditional upon Christ. In fact, the thatness of a resurrection is inevitable. But the when, the how, the where, and the by whom; the withness of our and their resurrection, is contingent not only on Brother Christ but on all brothers elder and younger, the whole family of Christ. In no world religion is this theme more central, more conscious, and more extensively carried out in action.

Death and Fatalism

Is the time of death preset? There are determinist religions that say yes. Among the Greek Stoics, submission to the necessity of death, including its timing, was the essence of wisdom. Among the Romans, the Greek idea of moira or destiny became the trump card of human courage. Shakespeare has Julius Caesar say he has no fear because “Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” In the Orient there is Kismet (fate), a denial at times of any chance or voluntary factors in the life and death process. In America we are told that one of every five citizens today believes somehow in astrology, and among the things the stars are believed to control is the time of death. The man who asked the spiritualist where he was going to die exclaimed, “I’ll never go there!” But the point of Greek tragedy, as of modern determinism, is that we have no choice.

Mormonism is not with the fatalists. It is true that modern revelation speaks of being “appointed unto death.” [16] And the Prophet Joseph Smith was promised in Liberty Jail, “Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less.” [17] (The inference is also, shall not be numbered more.) The assurance is not uncommon among Latter-day Saints that whereas the wicked may shorten their lives, the righteous are taken only when “their time” has come.

In fact, these promises are all conditional. Life may be prolonged by the united efforts of the faithful. Joseph’s exact promise was that if he hearkened unto the voice of the Spirit, he had about five years to live. The “if” clause, as well as the inexactness of the time, left room for his initiative. Promises to the faithful of protection, of fulfillment of missions, of safety arise not as an independent, relentless, grinding fate, but as the result of a free-willed covenant relationship in which both the will of man and the will of God collude. Only so long as one is true and faithful does one have promise; otherwise he has none.

Mourning Customs

The variations on meeting the dazing shock of death are almost infinite. Among the Jews, the first response is a shiva, a seven-day period of mourning. One remains at home, seated in the midst of sympathizing friends. Then comes shloshim; one avoids places of entertainment and follows ritual prayers. For parents this is followed by a full year of mourning. Comparable practices exist in other world religions.

Among the Mormons there is no valorizing or ceremonializing of mourning, though there is a characteristic funeral. Modern revelation admonishes, “Thou shalt weep for the loss of thy loved ones, especially those who have not hope of a glorious resurrection.” The promise “Those that die in me shall not taste [the bitterness of] death, for it shall be sweet unto them” [18] extends often to those bereaved. When death comes at a ripe climax of a life well lived, there is a noticeable absence of agony, a fervent sense of culmination, and even, at times, rejoicing.

Having worked four years in a cemetery witnessing funerals, graveside rituals, and patterns of almost every nationality, tradition, and emotional tone, I can report this: the closest analogy to a Mormon funeral at graveside is a missionary farewell. Here is a group of loved ones, not hard-faced and stoical, not blank and numb, but sensitized. There is apparent grief, but not despair. There is warmth and promise. This may be caught up in the words of Wilford Woodruff and then in a list of impressions otherwise unaccountable. First, President Woodruff:

I wish my body washed clean and clothed in clean white linen, according to the order of the Holy Priesthood, and put into a plain, decent coffin, made of native wood, with plenty of room. / do not wish any black made use of about my coffin, or about the vehicle that conveys my body to the grave. I do not wish my family or friends to wear any badge of mourning for me at my funeral or afterwards, for, if I am true and faithful unto death, there will be no necessity for anyone to mourn for me. . . . Their speech will be to the living. If the laws and customs of the spirit world will permit, I should wish to attend my funeral but I shall be governed by the counsel I receive in the spirit world. [19]

Now the list of impressions:

—The ancient mother who cheerfully sews her own white burial clothes.

—The widely known speaker who tapes his own funeral sermon and sparkles it with his verve for life.

—A gathering, as death hovers close, to appoint a celestial mailman. Messages to be delivered to loved ones on the other side. “Give my love to Mother,” or “Tell Aunt Martha we’re doing fine.” Here is absent the curious etiquette that forbids that even a husband and wife use the word “death” when one knows clearly that one is on his deathbed.

—Humor that is neither grisly nor forced, that enables a man emerging from a stroke to wink his one good eye and say to the family anxiously surrounding his bed, “I fooled you!”

—Addressing the deceased at the funeral or graveside as if she or he is present.

—The smile that so often attends the faithful, as if the last mortal facial set was in recognition of a beckoning loved one.

—The sense of mission in the military. Facing death is the price of Christ’s way.

—The music which resembles a hymnal rhapsody rather than the darkening dirge. “And may there be no sadness of farewell, when I embark.” (Tennyson.)

—The jibe of a J. Golden Kimball: “I can’t wait to die to see if all this stuff we’ve been teaching is true,” combined with the sober testimony, “When I meet my Father, I know he will understand me, and that is more than you have been able to do.”

—Prompt and some would say sudden remarriage. Joseph Smith followed the early custom of thinking marriage within three months was unkind to the memory of the dead but reversed himself when he counseled his brother Hyrum to marry “without delay.” [20]

Sacred Ground

Is the burial place sacred? In many religions, yes. Trespass onto Indian burial grounds is met with capital punishment. The excessive luxuriance of the pharaohs in mummification, rich artifacts, and pyramidal protection is an attempt to foil the sacrilege of gravediggers. In many churches, Catholic and Protestant, over the centuries the right to be buried in or near the churchyard has functioned as a spiritual badge or as posthumous excommunication.

Mormonism both affirms and denies these traditions. On the one hand, Joseph Smith praised and reembodied the desires of the ancient Joseph to have his bones brought back to the family tomb in Shechem. Before he undertook the perilous Zion’s Camp march, he charged Brigham Young to bring his body back to Kirtland. “I command you to do it in the name of Israel’s God,” and learning that missionary Lorenzo Barnes was being buried on foreign soil, he developed that theme. Late in 1844 he told his trusted brethren Alpheus Cutler and Reynolds Cahoon that he wanted to be buried by his father in a Nauvoo tomb, unless his enemies preempted his body as they had threatened. Likewise, he made the same request of Emma. John Taylor recalls his reason for this; it was future-oriented.

I heard Joseph Smith say at the time he was making a tomb at Nauvoo that he expected when the time came, when the grave would be rent asunder, that he would arise and embrace his father and mother, and shake hands with his friends. It was his written request that when he died, some kind friends would see he was buried near his bosom friends, so that when he and they arose in the morning of the First Resurrection, he could embrace them, saying, “My father! My mother!” [21]


One reading of much that I have said is that, for the Mormons, death is an illusion. There could not be a more fatal mistake . The mortal predicament is not simply that we have a deadline beyond which the body will temporarily dissolve; it is that while still in the body, we may so imbibe the poisons of sin that we suffer, in more or less degree, the permanent blows of death. One key for understanding all of the ordinances of the gospel, beginning with the rebirths of baptism and culminating in the sealings of the temple, is that all are instruments of overcoming both death of the body and death in the body.

In Mormon theology the adversary is the arch-destroyer; his diabolical objective is to clip the wings of life. To the degree that he diminishes life he is winning, as we are losing. It is a tragic confusion to suppose that his winning is temporary. He has already won one-third of the hosts of heaven against embodiment, plunging them into a lasting death. He is in a life-and-death struggle with all of mankind on an even broader scale. We may rejoice that “all will be saved except the sons of perdition.” But to be saved, even to be exalted in a delimited condition is to be partially damned.

Jacob prays, “May God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God, that ye may praise him through grace divine. Amen.” [22]


[1] Foreword to “The Favor of the Gods,” annual oration of the Society for Health and Human Values, by Ronald Berman, San Francisco, California, November 11, 1976.

[2] Sholem Aleichem.

[3] From William Clayton’s book, 8, MS 188, Brigham Young University Special Collections, Provo, Utah.

[4] See Minute Book of William P. Mclntyre, January 8, 1840–April 20, 1845, MSC 1014, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

[5] >D&C 93:33.

[6] See Oliver B. Huntington in They Knew the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974), 61.

[7] See Diary of Charles L. Walker, August, 1877, St. George, 576, BYU Special Collections.

[8] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938), 196.

[9] See Early History of Provo, 1849–1872; Utah Stake Bishop Meetings, July 17, 1868.

[10] See D&C 45:17.

[11] YWJ, V:490.

[12] D&C 84:25–26.

[13] Edward L. Stevenson, Life of Edward Stevenson, BYU Special Collections, 104.

[14] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 326.

[15] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 104–105.

[16] D&C 42:48.

[17] D&C 122:9.

[18] D&C 42:46.

[19] Matthias Cowley, “Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret News, 1909, 622.

[20] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 120.

[21] John Taylor, Gospel Kingdom (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1943), 23.

[22] 2 Nephi 10:25.