I must be the only man alive who has walked the full length and breadth of the Holy Land and the full length and breadth of the Salt Lake City Cemetery.
In this article I am going to describe something that you would never want to do yourself.
During the summer of 2013 I made seven trips to the Salt Lake City Cemetery—five hours each, for a total of thirty-five hours—and I walked the full length and breadth of the cemetery, examining what is engraved on more than 122,000 gravestones (along with 4,000 in Provo’s Eastlawn Cemetery), all of which makes a unique study of the most important things that summarize our mortal lives.
The reason I say that you would never want to do what I did is because the Salt Lake City cemetery’s grounds have a lot of ups and downs, dips, holes, ankle-turners—all in all, very uneven terrain.
Just like this life. But you did want to take this hike called mortality. In fact, you rejoiced in the opportunity to leave our heavenly home and go away to school, to learn absolutely essential lessons for eternity.
Great ideas can be very motivating. In this article I will be reviewing some beautiful lessons that have been carved in stone: brief messages with everlasting importance.
(In this article, inscriptions that I found carved into gravestones are shown here in CAPITAL LETTERS.)
Carved in stone
What details are usually cut into gravestones? The name of an individual, or the names of a couple. Dates of their arrival and departure—their coming and going—plus, for a couple, their marriage date. In Latter-day Saint country many will feature a carving of the Temple in which they were married. And many gravestones show the names of children. Plus, there may be one final message, a single statement in some way summarizing the individual’s or the couple’s life.
Words from the dead are words to live by. From the scriptures we hear “voices from the dead”: Nephi wrote, “I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust” (2 Nephi 33:13), and Moroni wrote, “Did I not declare my words unto you . . . like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?” (Moroni 10:27). “The words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead” (2 Nephi 17:13).
A touch of humor
Some final messages carved into gravestones made me smile, and some actually made me laugh:
“A TAILOR’S SON AND A FARMER’S GIRL DECIDED TO WED AND GIVE IT A WHIRL”
“THE WHITER THE BREAD THE SOONER YOU’RE DEAD”
“EAT DESSERT FIRST”
“THE GOOD WORD IS STILL CHOCOLATE”
“FIDDLE-DEE-DEE. I’LL THINK ABOUT IT TOMORROW”
“I’D RATHER BE GOLFING”
“THERE’S GOLD UP THERE” [To that I would say, of course there is; according to John’s Revelation, it’s road pavement!]
I found some very good counsel on gravestones:
“DON’T WORRY; BE HAPPY”
“REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE”
“FINISH THE JOB”
“LIVE WITHIN YOUR MEANS”
“KEEP SMILING—THE BEST IS YET TO COME”
“FAMILY MOTTO: BE LIKE A DUCK—CALM ON THE SURFACE AND PADDLING LIKE MAD UNDERNEATH”
“WHEN LAST SEEN HE WAS HEADED FOR THE TOP”
There are scenes of fishing, golfing, motorcycling, airplanes, pianos, guitars, sewing machines, playing cards, etc., but by far most gravestones show words, relationships, and thoughts that have long-term significance.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “THE PLACE WHERE A MAN IS BURIED IS SACRED TO ME.” I feel the same way. The Salt Lake City cemetery, one of the largest in the western United States, contains the final physical remains of over 122,000 souls. As I walked over so many graves I, too, felt that I was treading on sacred ground.
Most common words and expressions
Certain words and phrases clearly show that people matter more than things. The most common words on the gravestones are: Father, Mother, Husband, Wife, Son, Daughter, Children, and Friend. Also: “Eternal Lovers” and “Eternal Sweethearts.”
The most common expressions are: “IN LOVING MEMORY OF . . .” and “SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF . . .”
Many have the words “REST IN PEACE” or “AT REST.” But what is the doctrinal concept of “rest”? Many people think it means that for a thousand years we get to sit in a rocking chair, and then, during the next thousand years we get to start rocking!
Alma 40:12 teaches that “the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.”
However, President Joseph F. Smith wrote that “the rest here referred to is not physical rest, for there is no such thing as physical rest in the Church [and gospel] of Jesus Christ” (Improvement Era, vol. 7, no. 9 [July 1904], 714).
In a discourse delivered at a conference in Ogden, Utah, October 19, 1896, President Wilford Woodruff described an unusual series of dreams or visions he had of the spirit world:
“Joseph Smith continued visiting [me] and others up to a certain time and then stopped. . . . In the night vision I saw him . . . in heaven. . . . He said he could not stop to talk to me because he was in a hurry. The next man I met was Father Smith; he couldn’t talk to me because he was in a hurry. I met a half a dozen brethren who held high positions on earth, and none of them could stop to talk with me because they were in a hurry. I was much astonished.
“By and by I saw the Prophet again, and I got the privilege to ask him a question. . . . ‘I want to know why you are in a hurry? I have been in a hurry all my life, but I expected my hurry would be over when I got into the Kingdom of Heaven . . .’
“Joseph said, ‘I will tell you, Brother Woodruff, every dispensation that has had the priesthood on earth . . . has had a certain amount of work to do to prepare to [be] with the Savior when he goes to reign on earth. Each dispensation has had ample time to do this work. We have not. We are the last dispensation, and so much work has to be done and we need to be in a hurry in order to accomplish it.’
“Of course, that was satisfactory with me, but it was new doctrine to me” (in Deseret News Weekly, vol. 53, no. 21).
So our rest will not be physical. We will be working, but it will be sacred, happy, perfectly satisfying work.
Years ago I learned that the Hebrew term avodah means “work.” The very same word means “worship.” Work and worship are the same word in Hebrew, suggesting with regard to holy worship, you have to work at it.
I grew up using the rather juvenile exclamation, “Give me a break!” Well, we will get a break from mortal pain and affliction. It will be an everlasting break from physical pains and woes. And besides, we won’t need to stop and eat regularly, nor will we have to spend a third of our eternal life in bed. We will have unlimited energy—“unmarred by earthly care.”
One more of the most common expressions seen on gravestones is “GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.” It’s true. No one dies who lives in hearts left behind.
More inscriptions about remembering a loved one
“A POSTERITY SHALL KEEP THY NAME IN REMEMBRANCE FOREVER”
“TIME HATH NO POWER TO TEAR THY MEMORY FROM OUR HEARTS”
“YOUR PLACE IS VACANT AND NEVER CAN BE FILLED” and another:
“NO EMPTY CHAIRS PLEASE”
“THOSE WHO KNEW HER BEST LOVED HER MOST”
“HER BEAUTY AND SPIRIT LIVE ON IN OUR HEARTS”
“HER MANY VIRTUES FORM THE NOBLEST MONUMENT TO HER MEMORY”
The phrase “God is love” may be the highest expression of Godhood. Moroni taught that “whoso is found possessed of [love] at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:47).
“THIS LOVE STORY WILL NEVER END” also:
“A TRUE LOVE STORY HAS NO ENDING”
Henry Drummond taught that we want to live forever for the same reason we want to live tomorrow—there is someone who loves us, and we want to be with, and love back.
“LOVED YOU ONCE, LOVE YOU STILL; ALWAYS HAVE, ALWAYS WILL”
“THERE IS NO END TO LOVE”
The following words from his hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” (#284) are carved on the gravestone of William W. Phelps:
There is no end to matter;
There is no end to space;
There is no end to spirit;
There is no end to race.
There is no end to glory;
There is no end to love;
There is no end to being;
There is no death above.
“THOSE WHOM WE NEVER CEASE TO LOVE WE NEVER LOSE”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in the most famous of her Sonnets from the Portuguese (and I believe Mrs. Browning actually wrote it for Brother Ogden to say to his wife, Marcia): “. . . AND, IF GOD CHOOSE, I SHALL BUT LOVE THEE BETTER AFTER DEATH.”
“I GIVE TO YOU AND YOU GIVE TO ME, TRUE LOVE;
FOR ON AND ON IT WILL ALWALYS BE, LOVE FOREVER TRUE”
There’s a beautiful statement attributed to both Elder Marvin J. Ashton and Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “Pleasure usually takes the form of me and now; joy is us and always.”
About death and resurrection
“DYING IS BUT GOING HOME”
But are we really going Home—to the current residence of our Heavenly Father somewhere out there in deep space near Kolob? No. We go to the spirit world, a temporary rest-house until our new Home is built—i.e., until this earth is celestialized and becomes our permanent, eternal Home.
It is important to remember that death is not a period, but a comma in the story of life. In the end, only death will die. All living things will live forever. I have often joked with my students that “none of us is getting out of this life alive.” Actually, all of us are getting out of this life alive! And one of my all-time favorite thoughts is that the righteous never have to say good-bye for the last time.
Possibly the most tender of all the inscriptions I saw is this one: “PLEASE DON’T STAND AT MY GRAVE AND CRY. I AM NOT DEAD. I DID NOT DIE.”
“CHEER UP, FOR SOON WE SHALL MEET WITH OUR ANCESTORS IN PARADISE.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell beautifully taught that we cannot understand the joy of reunion until we have experienced the pain of separation.
“RISE AND SHINE”
Let’s analyze this one for a moment. We will rise, but will we shine? We will all rise from the darkness of the grave to the most exquisite light (except a few, who will remain in darkness—outer darkness). How much light you rise to, and how much you will shine, you are deciding by how you are living right now, day by day.
“THERE’S GOT TO BE A BETTER PLACE” (Amen to that!)
“THE RESURRECTION IS AS REAL AS DEATH”
Again, we are all going to rise and live forever. Everyone? Way back on my first mission, in Argentina, about two hundred years ago, my companion and I were teaching a man about the plan of salvation, when, at one point, he realized what we were teaching him and he exclaimed, “Wait! Don’t tell about another life. I hate this one; I don’t want another one!” Our view, of course, is that the object of life is more life. And yes, that man in Argentina will also rise and live forever. It’s a reality for everyone who lives on earth.
One day I was officiating in a sealing session in the Provo Utah Temple, and there were several totally deaf people who were participating in the session. Standing next to me was a brother who was signing everything I said during the ordinances. I assured the deaf brothers and sisters that in the resurrection they would rise with the ability to hear perfectly well. Joseph Smith taught: “ALL YOUR LOSSES WILL BE MADE UP TO YOU IN THE RESURRECTION, PROVIDED YOU CONTINUE FAITHFUL.”
Anything eternally desirable that you didn’t get in the first place, or sometime lost, you will yet have that blessing forever—provided you continue faithful.
Temple-related matters of eternity
The Temple is “OUR GATEWAY TO ETERNITY”
“HOLINESS TO THE LORD”
“THE PROMISES ARE REAL”
“ETERNITY IS IN PROGRESS”
“SEALED FOR ETERNITY”
Hugh Winder Nibley is buried in a small plot in the southeast part of Eastlawn Cemetery in Provo, Utah. Professor Nibley had one of the most brilliant minds in our dispensation, yet even with his massive scholarly output, represented by nineteen thick volumes of his published writings, he requested only one simple line inscribed on his gravestone: “DOORKEEPER IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD.”
Purposes of life
I saw the inscription “FOREVER FREE” several times in the Salt Lake City cemetery. But whether or not someone is forever free depends on the person’s behavior here on earth, and on their accepting and living eternal truths. John 8:32 says that you can “know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Only through knowing and living unchangeable truth that is centered in God can one actually be forever free.
“I DID IT MY WAY” I was quite surprised at how many times I saw this inscription, and every time it raised a question mark in my mind. Jesus said, “I am the way.” To deserve eternal life, God’s kind of life, I believe that we have to follow Him and do it His way. So is there anything noble or commendable about me claiming to do it “my way”? By way of contrast, I also saw on other gravestones Jesus’ earnest exclamation: “THY WILL BE DONE.”
“THE KINGDOM OF GOD FIRST” The first two commandments the Lord gave to Moses were, in essence, “No other Gods before me” and the elaboration of the first: “Don’t make any graven images.” God must be number one in our lives. Jesus said, “he that loveth father or mother [or any others] more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Having a spouse and trying to raise faithful children perfectly fit the doctrine of the kingdom of God first. Raising a righteous family is building the Kingdom of God, thus putting God first.
“ONLY A LIFE LIVED IN THE SERVICE OF OTHERS IS WORTH LIVING” Though that is a teaching worthy of any General Authority of the Lord’s Church, it was actually Albert Einstein who expressed that timeless thought.
“AND SHE WENT ABOUT DOING GOOD” That inscription is an adaptation of Acts 10:38, which says that Jesus “went about doing good.” The assignment every one of us has here on earth is to help influence lives, so we pray every day to do some good and help change lives.
“GOD AND HOME WERE HER CHIEF TREASURES HERE—SHE HATH THEM BOTH IN HEAVEN”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “We look on marriage and the bearing and nurturing of children as part of God’s plan and a sacred duty of those given the opportunity to do so. We believe that the ultimate treasures on earth and in heaven are our children and our posterity” (October Conference 2013 [Ensign, Nov. 2013, 73]).
“MY GREATEST TREASURES WERE MY CHILDREN”
John 17:3 tells us that it is life eternal to know God and Jesus Christ. The Hebrew word “life” appears in the plural, so the Hebrew phrase eleh hem kha-yea ha-olamim literally means “And these are eternal lives . . .” (compare D&C 132:24). Eternal lives—that’s what it is all about: “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever” (D&C 132:19).
“FAMILIES ARE FOREVER” When I spoke at my mother’s funeral, I entitled my talk with a one-line summary of her life: “She lived for her family.”
“FATHER, MOTHER, I’M HOME!” What a happy exclamation that is! One of our prophets declared that the most appropriate epitaph for a Latter-day Saint is “Gone to another meeting.” What a glorious meeting that will be—with our Father and Mother.
Many passages of scripture
In the Salt Lake City cemetery I noticed the use of various scriptural passages from all four of the standard works of the Church. I especially noticed the frequent use of 3 John 1:4:
“I HAVE NO GREATER JOY THAN TO HEAR THAT MY CHILDREN WALK IN TRUTH.”
And 2 Timothy 4:7 appeared fairly regularly on gravestones:
“I HAVE FOUGHT A GOOD FIGHT, I HAVE FINISHED MY COURSE, I HAVE KEPT THE FAITH.”
Were there space on the stone and monetary resources to accommodate inscribing another verse, I would quickly add the next verse (verse 8) to the previous one: “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” To be sure, He is appearing in His House, the Holy Temple. Hopefully we love to go there regularly and frequently—to learn of Him and covenant to become more like He is.
Now, a little disclaimer: this article really isn’t about visiting cemeteries and examining gravestones. My purpose has been to provoke you to think about what matters most in this mortal life. If you were to decide on a single phrase, or a single idea, to represent your whole mortal life—what would it be?
I invite you to live your life so that your “one final message”—from mortality— perhaps carved permanently in stone but for sure carved in the hearts of loved ones, can be a happy, positive message that will inspire your loved ones and live on forever.