Two Ways to Remember the Dead
On Memorial Day we think of our dead and put flowers on their graves. Is there anything more we can do? Many like to think that the dead enjoy a kind of continued existence by living in our memories. That is a kindly sentiment but more depressing than exhilarating. It has the faint odor and faded colors of a Maeterlinck fantasy or a Russian novel (such as Oblomov's Dream), and it meets us often in the wistful and heartbreaking little epitaphs that have been found on the graves of pagan Greeks and Romans. To think constantly of the dead is morbid; to think of them occasionally is nice—but a poor sort of immortality. We have occasionally used the expression "earth-bound." Things of the spirit should not be earth-bound. What could be more depressing than the old-fashioned churchyard with its shadowy vaults; its seeping damp and odor of decay; its aged, mossy stones; its weeping willows and drooping plumes; in short, all those fixtures of the cult of the dead which seem like nothing so much as desperate devices to tie the dead to this world and keep them always within call.
This Gothic view of death, this obsession with the grisly remnants of the body, is not a healthy thing. The reaction from it in modern times has been a flight to another and equally unhealthy extreme, for the present age seems determined to leave death out of its calculations entirely, save for certain annoying details of a sanitary and legal nature. This has done much to make for shallowness and triviality in modern life. We think and act as if death were not part of the program at all, or as if it were a frightful piece of bungling in the ordering of our lives, a terrible and senseless mistake. Death has disappeared from our serious thinking to meet us in every drugstore and bus station as the leitmotif of all our lighter reading. A strange and sordid business, this preoccupation with the sensational, the sordid, and the brutal aspects of death. The spectre which we drove out the back door has returned by the front.
How then should one think of the dead? It is one of the offices of true religion to teach us that. It was because philosophy could not answer the great questions of life, as we have seen, that such men as Clement and Justin and Tertullian turned from it to Christianity. Speculation and tradition, then as now, gave dignified but quite unsatisfactory answers, and the honest seeker saw clearly that if men were ever to learn anything certain about the great mysteries of the beyond, such information would have to come by revelation. That is true today as it was in ancient times. The comfort of philosophy, the quiet resignation and calm acquiescence with fate are well enough in themselves, but they are what in ancient times distinguished the pagan from the Christian, for the latter amazed the world by the robust and joyful assurance with which he viewed things of the other world. One of the most striking features of primitive Christianity was its constant and hardheaded insistence on the nearness and reality of the other side. A pagan critic of the early Christians remarked with wonder and annoyance that "they think nothing of present torments, but worry about what is to happen hereafter; and while they dread perishing after death, they don't fear dying here at all, so completely taken in are they by the false hope of living hereafter."1 In Androcles and the Lion, George Bernard Shaw attempted to depict the old and intriguing phenomenon of people who did not fear death; he saw that the contrast of this point of view with the normal one is so great as to create in itself hilarious situations; he saw that without any irreverence, there was something perfectly delightful in a religion which could view the life to come without any of the sombre Mumbo Jumbo of cult practices; and he also realized that in the primitive Christian church he found a view of death that was unique in history and totally unlike that of the later Christian churches.
Now there is nothing unusual in a belief in an afterlife—as St. Augustine observed, it was a view quite commonly held by pagan philosophers. What set the early Christians apart was that they were not at all vague about the business. Just as for them the charismatic gifts—prophecy, tongues, healings, etc.—were real, literal, and concrete, so the life to come was not an abstraction or a rational necessity, but a thing to be experienced. As long as we find living prophets in the church, these things cannot be thought of as anything but real; they are all part of the same picture and have the same explanation—a living bond with the heavens, a continuous intercourse between this world and the other. And when the gift of prophecy departs, we witness at the same time the cessation of the other heavenly gifts, and with that the church changes its views of the other world, becoming perplexed and uncertain about things which it once knew so well.
A good deal has been written recently about the abrupt and surprising reorientation of the Christian church in the second century. At that time the attitude of the Christians to this world and the next suddenly and completely changed. So complete was this change of outlook and belief and so different was the resulting church from the apostolic one that the radical Dutch and German schools of church history were able to maintain that the primitive Christian church had never really existed, but was just an idealized reconstruction made in retrospect! One of the most instructive aspects of that change is the attitude of the church writers toward death. If we compare, say, Ignatius of Antioch with St. Basil on this subject, we find that the two men have absolutely nothing in common. Ignatius, who lived in the first and early second centuries, is straining every nerve to get to the other side. Any fame he might leave behind him as a saint or a martyr—any help he might give the church as its best-informed bishop—is no concern of his. As far as this world is concerned, he has lost all interest, every speck of it. Food and drink and the pleasure of life have ceased to exist for him: "I no longer wish to live after the manner of men," he writes to the Romans. "Believe me, I am sincere in this."2 Though he is quite aware that no man on earth could do the church as much good as he by continuing to live, he is nonetheless resolved not to linger here below for another moment if by any means short of suicide he can leave it. For Ignatius, the only reality is on the other side, and there is nothing metaphysical or abstract about it.
But consider St. Basil, the great theologian of the fourth century. Among his numerous surviving letters are a pair written to console friends of his for the loss of a child.3 These consolations read exactly like those of the pagan classical writers: The usual commonplaces about the inevitability of death and the shortness and misery of life do not attempt to hide the conviction that death is after all the supreme evil. But for a few scattered and conventional biblical terms, the letters might have all been written by Cicero, and some of them betray not the slightest trace of any Christian influence. What had happened to the faith? I grant you the consolatio was a well-established literary genre in the schools, but Basil is writing to his dearest Christian friends to give them what comfort he can as a bishop—surely, if he had more to give them he would. When the great Boethius in the sixth century was condemned to die, it was not religion but Dame Philosophy who brought him consolation in the death cell, and the famous essay she dictated on that melancholy occasion is not to be distinguished from the writings of a typical heathen philosopher in style, vocabulary, mood, or thought. Eventually the Christians ended up fearing death more anxiously than ever the pagans had. According to F. J. E. Raby, by the end of the Middle Ages "it now became a pious exercise to meditate on every ghastly detail which the imagination could add to the picture of the Passion," the individual identifying himself as much as possible with the suffering.4 "For the medieval Christian," writes Raby, "the Day of Judgment was almost wholly a day of terror," and "this same sense of terror is expressed in the . . . Mass for the Dead. . . . The recurring refrain in this noble prose adds to the sense of fear and apprehension."5 This Raby finds to be in complete contrast to "the joy and comfort of the early church."6 And so we see, when revelation ceased, the Christians went back to thinking about death exactly as the pagans do. That is neither surprising nor reprehensible, but it does offer us a good test for a true and prophetic religion. For such a religion must surely be one in which the early rather than the later Christian view of death prevails, and such a view has always characterized the Latter-day Saints.
Now, I would like to point to one of the most wonderful and exciting aspects of the restored gospel, and that is the great work for the dead that is so peculiar to the Church of Jesus Christ. I do not specify "of Latter-day Saints," for this work was done by the primitive Christians as well. The knowledge of that all-important work was taken away at an early time, for after the third century the fathers of the church are much perplexed whenever it is mentioned, though all admit that the earliest Christians actually did perform certain ordinances for the salvation of the dead. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the Christians of apostolic times placed great emphasis on this work, for among the very early fragments of Christian literature that have been discovered in recent years, the subject is referred to as a very special knowledge imparted by the Lord to the Apostles in secret conferences after the resurrection.7 This is not surprising, in view of the evidence of the Clementine homilies that the earliest Christians baptized in secret places,8 and the constant charges of secrecy that were being brought against them—charges which they did not deny.
What was the nature of this work for the dead? The early Christians were convinced, as modern Christians are, that no man can get into heaven without baptism. Now most of those early Christians were converts to the church, and that meant that their parents in most cases and their grandparents in all cases had died without ever having heard of the baptism of salvation. Would these loved ones be forever damned? One of the first things Clement asks Peter upon being introduced to him, in the Clementine Recognitions, is, "Shall those be wholly deprived of the kingdom of heaven who died before Christ's coming?" for he was thinking probably of his own forebears. Peter's answer is very significant: "You force me, Clement, to make public things that are not to be discussed. But I see no objection to telling you as much as we are allowed to. Christ, who always was from the beginning, has visited the righteous of every generation (albeit secretly), and especially those who have looked forward to his coming, to whom he often appeared. Still it was not yet time for the resurrection of bodies that perished then, . . . but those who pleased him and did his will were translated to paradise, to be preserved there for the kingdom, while those who were not able to fulfill the complete law of justice, but had certain traces of carnal weakness in their nature, when their bodies died went in the spirit to be retained in good and happy places, that at the resurrection of the dead each might be empowered to receive an eternal heritage for the good he had done."9 This much Peter is willing to tell, but he will not divulge to the new investigator just how those who have never heard the gospel in life are to be saved.
Whatever one may think of this very old fragment, it certainly shows that there were some early Christians who knew about salvation for the dead as a doctrine not taught to the general public. Both the theory and practice were remembered in the traditions of the church, where they provided no end of puzzlement and speculation to the commentators. Typical is St. Bruno at the end of the twelfth century, who still recalls, with routine disapproval, of course, that certain of the early Christians in New Testament times "would baptize themselves in the place of a dead parent who had never heard the gospel, thereby securing the salvation of a father or a mother in the resurrection." 10 It might be argued that this work ceased in later times because after everybody had belonged to the church for generations there would be no unbaptized fathers and mothers. But one need only consider that in every age the church has been a missionary organization—a believing minority determined to carry forth the work of converting the heathen majority all of whose parents and grandparents are without baptism—to realize that work for the dead never should have ceased, since it is necessary as long as outsiders continue to join the church. When a Germanic king was converted to Christianity, for example, he refused to accept baptism since that meant basely leaving his noble ancestors to suffer in hell while he enjoyed himself in heaven—that, in all conscience, he could not do.
From the earliest fragments, a good deal of the theory and practice of baptism for the dead in the apostolic church can be reconstructed. There were two main steps necessary to achieving salvation for the dead—the kerygma and baptism. The kerygma is the preaching of the word to those who are dead. It takes place, of course, in the other world, in a place where the dead are retained, a place designated with calculated vagueness—scrupulous avoidance of any attempt to designate a particular locale. What is made perfectly clear is that the dead who have not accepted the gospel on earth for any reason are detained in a place which is by no means disagreeable but is not heaven. To these (the ancient saints taught) the Lord and, following his example, the Apostles and other holy men of old went down and preached the word.11 No spirit was forced to accept the kerygma, but such as did could leave their detention and advance in eternity just as soon as they had received the seal. The seal was what the early Christians called baptism in this connection. It was the seal of baptism that was put on the acceptance of the preaching on the other side. If it was accepted, the seal was effective, and what was sealed on earth was sealed in heaven. The seal was given by ministrants acting by proxy for the dead on this earth, for baptism could be given nowhere else, it was realized, and in no other way—"there is only one baptism," was the formula. In the Pastor of Hermas these earthly officiants are described as being the Apostles themselves, who while they were still alive baptized each other "for those who had fallen asleep before."12
Today, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are everywhere engaged in the great work of searching out the records of their ancestors. Along with this the building and operation of our temples goes forward, for as in the ancient church, this work is not carried out in public. In these holy places the ordinances for the dead are performed by any worthy member of the Church who wishes to participate, from the age of eight years to extremely advanced ages when people are commonly thought to have passed their usefulness in most fields of work. Everything is done in a joyful and happy spirit. We love our kindred dead, and our own exaltation as well as theirs depends on the work we do for them. The New Revised Translation of the New Testament, recently greeted in many parts with considerable enthusiasm, gives an enlightening twist to the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15:29 dealing with this work: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they baptized for their dead?"
With the exception of the verse just cited, a few perplexed commentaries on it, and the unnoticed passage from the Pastor of Hermas, all our evidence for the practice of baptism for the dead in ancient times comes from fragments recently discovered. The possession of this strange and wonderful thing by the restored Church of Jesus Christ for over a hundred years would therefore seem to be an almost fool-proof certificate of authenticity. The prophets of modern times remember the dead exactly as did those prophets of old, and in the growing evidence for the nature of that work among the first Christians, time has vindicated the modern prophets.
1. Minucius Felix, Octavius 8, in PL 3:269.
2. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans 8, in PG 5:816.
3. Basilius, Epistles 5 and 6 (Class I), in PG 32:237—44.
4. F. J. E. Raby, A History of Christian-Latin Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1927), 420.
5. Ibid., 445.
6. Ibid., 444.
7. For a preliminary treatment of this subject, Hugh Nibley, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times," Improvement Era 52 (1949): 24.
8. Clement of Alexandria, Homilia 14, in PG 11:345.
9. Clementine Recognitions I, 52, in PG 1:1236.
10. Bruno, Expositio in Epistolam I ad Corinthios xv 29, in PL 153:209; for the perplexities of the later Fathers, see Nibley, "Baptism for the Dead," 91.
11. Ibid., 24ff.
12. Hermae Pastor (Shepherd of Hermas) III, Similitude IX, 16, in PG 2:995—96; cf. Nibley, "Baptism for the Dead," 90.