This weekend I attended the grave-side service for my aunt. It was an emotional and spiritual event that I am grateful to have attended. The service was consistent with standard church practice, including the dedication of the grave. Like many practices in our church, the dedication of graves has evolved over time. This post will highlight the cogent information that I was able to gather on the subject.
It is unclear as to when the practice was first implemented. The earliest account that I was able to find was that of George A. Smith’s Funeral:
After the large crowd of people had dispersed save a few, Elder John L. Smith, brother of the departed, and others remaining, knelt around the grave while he offered up a heart-felt, soul moving, prayer, dedicating the ground and the remains, that they might rest undisturbed till the morning of the resurrection. (Millennial Star vol. 37 pg. 638 & Deseret News, Sept. 6, 1875)
As this account was published in the official publications of the time it is reasonable to assume that the dedication was a regular practice. As the terminology of the prayer is focused on the “morning of the first resurrection”, a concept that is intimately involved with temple ordinances* and as Joseph Smith did not preach the concept until after he had received the Nauvoo temple ordinances it is likely that grave dedications were initiated close to the time of his death.
Throughout the majority of Church history and unlike contemporary practice, grave dedications have not been priesthood ordinances. The Improvement Era carried a brief narrative describing the passing of an individual, including the dedication in 1906 (vol. 8 ):
We dedicate, O God, this grave, as the resting place of our friend and fellow workman. May his body rest in peace; may this place be sacred to his name and memory; may he arise with the just on the resurrection day, in Jesus’ name. Amen
The 1941 Priesthood Manual contained the following instruction:
Dedicating Graves. Though one holding the Priesthood is generally chosen, any suitable person may dedicate a grave. This may be done either with or without the authority of the Priesthood. The one offering the prayer may begin: “Our Father in heaven, surrounding this open grave we dedicate and consecrate this spot of earth as the final resting place for the body of ” To this may appropriately be added supplication to the Lord that this spot of earth may be a hallowed place to which the kindred may come, and that at the time appointed for its resurrection the body may again come forth reanimated with the spirit. (Priesthood and Church Government pg. 360)
The fact that non-priesthood holders could dedicate graves was reaffirmed in the Improvement Era‘s outline of the priesthood lesson stating that the dedication “[m]ay be done by any suitable person.”
By the end of the decade, however, there was a substantial paradigm shift and the dedicatory prayer became a recognized Priesthood ordinance. For example, the 1948 Improvement Era (vol. 51) contained the following instruction for the Melchizedek Priesthood:
No set forms have been revealed in our day pertaining to the blessing of children, confirmation and bestowal of the Holy Ghost, conferring the priesthood, consecration of oil, administering to the sick, and dedication of graves. The two essential elements in all of the foregoing are that each ordinance shall be performed by the authority of the priesthood and in the name of Jesus Christ.
Later, Bruce R. McConkie was emphatic in his Mormon Doctrine (1966) on the priestly nature of the dedication:
It is the accepted practice of the Church — based on precedent and guided by the spirit of revelation in those whom God has chosen to lead the Church to dedicate the graves of faithful saints who depart this life. Dedication of graves is an ordinance of the gospel and is performed in the name of Christ and in the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood.
The dedication of graves is now recognized as a priesthood ordinance in such places as The Missionary Handbook and the Church Handbook of Instructions.
At some point dedications developed into a lengthy prayer, often several minutes in length. A useful parallel would be the dedicatory prayers of Temples – often lengthy and addressing many facets of the individual and those who are at the service. While still early in the 20th century, Matthew Cowley dedicated his mother’s grave in 1931 in a manner that is very similar to the record of the dedication of Harold B. Lee’s grave in 1973. Both were exemplary of the loquacious tenor of modern practice:
O GOD, our Creator and Father—At the conclusion of the beautiful services of this day we gather together at the side of this grave wherein we now prepare to place the mortal remains of our devoted mother and fellow creator…
In her mortal existence she understood the permanent values of life as her life was interpreted and actuated by noble and exalting thoughts…
In this matter-of-fact world, we strive to reach thee, our Father, through service and ceremony in beautiful cathedrals and well-appointed chapels which have been dedicated by priest and elders…
(Matthew Cowley Speaks (1954) pg. 439)
*e.g., The Millennial Star (vol. 15 pg. 215) published the complete text of the sealing ordinance: “…I seal upon you the blessings of the holy resurrection, with the power to come forth in the morning of the first resurrection…” The verbiage of the pertinent temple ordinance was also often quoted in General Conference during the 19th century.