Dedicating Graves: a Brief History

By: J. Stapley - August 02, 2005

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.


  1. Very informative, J. I wonder if there weren’t more historical precedents you could look to, i.e. the King Follett Discourse, as examples of grave dedication. But I noticed the tendency over time for the dedication to shift from a committing the body over to God, towards a consecration of the grave itself….

    Comment by Steve Evans — 8/2/2005 @ 7:04 pm

  2. Interesting, though I guess the question is what and how you are dedicating the grave to.

    I’ve got to figure out my database issues so I can get my site to accept a wordpress blog. I’ve been impressed by what you do with yours (my wordpress project is at ).

    Still browsing around.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — 8/2/2005 @ 7:20 pm

  3. Interesting, Steve. The History of the Church (vol. 6 pg. 249) states simply that, “Brother King Follett was buried this day with Masonic honors.” And that, “[Joseph] attended meeting at the stand, and preached on the subject of Elias, Elijah, and Messiah.” This is of course a different talk than what we call the King Follett Discourse. The History of the Church notes that James Adams was likewise buried on August 16, 1843. Though there are prayers associated with Masonic burial services, it looks like they are not dedicatory in nature.

    Also, the History of the Church‘s detailed description of Joseph Smith’s funeral has no mention of a dedicatory prayer and I think that one can reasonably conclude that none was performed. This coupled with the fact that, of all the burials mentioned in the HC, none mention dedication suggests that the practice started in Utah.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/2/2005 @ 8:15 pm

  4. Interesting. I wish I had the source, but I’ve read of an early Utah stake president (his account) of having one day ploughed up some human bones and then seeing them, as described by Ezekial, re-animate and resurrect into a young Lamanite girl . He concluded the grave must have been dedicated by the ancients to have the girl resurrect when it was disturbed since it was probebly a shallow, hurried grave in the first place.
    Don’t know how true and/or accurate that is but it’s interesting and may be a possible insight into Nephite/Lamanite grave dedication.

    Comment by Bret — 8/3/2005 @ 3:07 pm

  5. Interesting, indeed. The version I heard was a that of a pioneer girl who was buried in a shallow grave on the trail west. My initial search couldn’t find anything, but I’ll do some digging. In any case, seems like urban legend material to me.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/3/2005 @ 3:19 pm

  6. As I read your post I thought of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg.

    “………..We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who died here that the nation might live. This we in all propriety do. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground………..”

    This makes me wonder if the custom of dedicating graves is not LDS specific. We have certainly added our own procribed way to proceed.

    Comment by jns — 8/3/2005 @ 7:02 pm

  7. It is fascinating to me that what is now a Priesthood ordinance was once performable by a “suitable” (Worthy?) person. This makes me think that a woman could have done it. There are plenty of examples in my family history (and for lots of pioneers, I think) of women participating in events in a way that we do not now. Not too long ago, my great-grandmother participated in a blessing of the sick being voiced by her husband. I think this was common practice for their generation, but when I mentioned it to someone not in my family (not a recent convert, but a convert), he went all out to explain to me that what I thought was happening in that situation was not happening. I think he (a priestood holder) was uncomfortable with the idea of a woman stepping into “his” territory. Is it just me, or do some men seem somewhat territorial of what they think is their jurisdiction? (whether that is being the last speaker in Sacrament, saying the opening prayer, etc.)

    I also guess that dedicating graves might have been a common practice in that era of American christianity. Are there examples in the scriptures?

    Comment by ESO — 8/3/2005 @ 7:22 pm

  8. In Korea, one of the native Elders wanted to dedicate a grave by laying on of hands. I pulled him aside and mentioned that we just say a prayer. He asked how I knew. I told him that my father was dead and that was how it was done then. That experience helped me understand how changes could creep subtly into the early church.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — 8/4/2005 @ 10:07 am

  9. ESO and jns are right. Now that I think of it, I remember the way most of the western nations navies dedicated the “graves” of those buried at sea. I know that at least the British navy back in its heyday commissioned them to the deep till the day of resurrection when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would raise them up again.

    Comment by Bret — 8/6/2005 @ 3:24 pm

  10. Great insight Bret…now I’m going to have to go read some British naval history.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/6/2005 @ 6:22 pm

  11. I wonder if it is ever appropriate to dedicate a grave after a funeral has taken place.

    Comment by Kim Siever — 8/21/2005 @ 9:02 pm

  12. hmmm…interesting. I am not sure, but I don’t see any reason why not. You can dedicate a house after you move in.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/21/2005 @ 10:01 pm

  13. Dedicating a house isn’t a priesthood ordinance, or is not one that is specifically done by priesthood authority.

    Comment by Kim Siever — 9/6/2005 @ 7:18 am

  14. Had to do some digging, but I found my copy of the experience of Zeke Johnson written when he was 85 in 1954. He said he had the experience in 1908 or 1909 in Blanding, UT. He wrote, “I was working to clear the ground…[when] I discovered there were ancient houses there….As I was plowing around I noticed that my plow had turned out the skeleton of a small child. The skull and the backbone, most of the bones of course, were decayed and gone…. As I was looking at the little skeleton… all of a sudden… I saw the bones wiggle and began to change position and to take on a different color. And within a minute there lay a beautiful skeleton. … Then I say the inner parts of the natural body coming in- the entrails, etc. I saw the flesh coming on, and I saw skin come on the body when the inner parts of the body were complete. A beautiful head of hair adorned the top of the head, and in about a half a minute… the child raised up on her feet…. as she raised up a beautiful robe came down over her left shoulder and I say it must be a girl. As she looked at (me) and I looked at her for a quarter of a minute- we just looked at each other smiling. Then in my desire to get hold of her I said, “Oh you beautiful child!” And I reached as if I would embrace her, and she disappeared.
    Later a stake patriarch, Wayne H. Redd of Blanding felt that he had had an experience and asked him to share it. He wondered for years why he had been given this experience. One day he was told by “something” that “when the child was buried there it was either in time of war…or it was winter time when the ground was frozen…. They just planted that little body as deep as they could… When it was done the sorrowing mother knew that it was such a shallow little grave, that in her sorrow she cried out to the group that was present, “That little (girl), the first beast that come along will smell her body and will dig her up…. There just happened to be a man present holding the Priesthood (a Nephite or a Jaredite, I don’t know which because they had both been in this country…). This man said, “Sister, calm your sorrows. Whenever that little body is disturbed or uncovered, the Lord will call her up and she will live.”
    Related by Zeke Johson, son of Joel Hills Johnson. Retyped and reproduced by Dale A. McAllister of Orem, Utah.

    Comments: So, this must be a grave dedication occurring at the time of the Nephites or Jaredites. Not to say that every grave dedication will result in a resurrection. And now, if you will forgive an unorthodox source, a catholic priest wrote:
    The jews had an old custom “which is described by Schickardus in his works upon Hebrew rites and ceremonies… He mentions that the Jews clasp the hands of the dead so that in their disposing they fancifully form the name of Almighty God (shows a Shin, Daleth, and Yodh)…. Delrio tells us that the demon has indeed a certain power over the bodies of the dead, and he may indeed take their form and appear in this shapep and his power is especially great over those which are buried in unconsecrated ground…. Should a grave seem at all suspect, not perhaps of vampirism, but as being a focus of exceptional phenomena, a requiem or even trentals will be sung or said for the deceased. If ultimate measures have to be taken these, of course will be directed according to the canon by ecclesiastical authority.”- Montague Summers, The Vampire in Europe, pp.204,206. Other that that, I’ve asked prominent LDS morticians, and noone has any idea where the dedication of grave ceremony began. Thanks for all your input.

    Comment by Steve Johnson — 2/20/2007 @ 12:05 am

  15. I looked up the account in the BYU archives and it was simply the story of a woman that heard this recounted in a sacrament meeting (I guess it was a fairly popular story back in the day). There is, however, a copy of Zeke’s account in the USU archive’s folklore collection. I’m not sure that we can derive much from this account beyond the cultural information of time. I would be very reticent to draw theological conclusions from such a source.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 2/20/2007 @ 12:53 am

  16. The evolution of Church policy and practice concerning the dedication of graves is interesting – thanks for sharing this information.

    The article on “Dedications” in the Encylopedia of Mormonism contains an interesting brief explanation of the practice of dedicating objects, places, or actions to divine purposes – see .

    To the question in comment #11, I would reply that, as I have located and visited the resting places of my ancestors, I have dedicated those sites the same as is done at modern burial services. These solemn prayers have included expressions of appreciation and love for our progenitors; some of these dedications have been remembered as special spiritual experiences by family members of various faiths.

    Comment by Tristan Baier — 1/11/2009 @ 9:13 pm

  17. I heard the account of Ezekiel “Zeke” Johnson and the plowed up bones, just the other day, from his nephew, an older gentleman, who was visiting the Family History center where I work- I think his name was Bernie Johnson. In his teens- he thinks sometime around 1955/56- he heard his Uncle Zeke bear this testimony firsthand. He told me pretty much the same story, emphasizing that he heard it with his own ears, from his uncle. I recorded it at the time, with a digital recorder. Some say it’s just folklore. All I know is this gentleman told it to me and my recorder, as a first hand account. I’m not willing to cast doubt on his account, nor his uncle’s. It is what it is, and we can believe or not. It was a very sweet experience, and it left me feeling very warm and calm, not troubled.

    Comment by Carla E. — 6/22/2009 @ 6:01 pm

  18. I am attending BYU and am doing a research paper on Ezekiel Johnson’s experiance I am related to him. and My gradpa heard the story from Zenos Black, a temple worker in Manti, who was freinds with Ezekial and said it was true. I want to understand the story better. So I am looking for all accounts given of the story to see if I can find some varriations. If anyone has any other accounts or insights please post.

    Comment by Tyler LeBaron — 11/15/2009 @ 2:34 pm

  19. Joel Hills Johnson also documented an event in my family history tied to George Deliverance Wilson (who married a Johnson). Joseph Smith married a Johnson daughter as well. They were brothers-in-law. The great hailstorm miracle. The great grandmother (daughter to a very old GDW through his 5th wife) was about 7 years old when the miracle took place. She shared it with me when I was very young. Call if you want to hear. 801 471 8881

    Comment by Jon Norton — 3/3/2010 @ 2:04 am

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