Ask Us: Top Five Reference Questions about Funerals and Burials

by Emily Marie Crumpton-Deason
12 July 2022

The Church History Library receives many questions about Church funerals and burial practices, as well as questions about researching death records. Find answers to the top five most frequently asked questions here.

1. What is a Latter-day Saint grave “dedication”?

In a religious context, “dedication” means to commit or set apart something or someone for the purpose of serving God; it is a way to make something holy. The general concept of dedication is not unique to Latter-day Saint culture or beliefs. Many religions (Christian and otherwise) perform dedication rituals, although they may differ in style and meaning. For example, it is not uncommon for buildings such as churches, synagogues, and temples to be dedicated. In addition, many people engage in dedication rituals of their own bodies; baptism, for instance, can be considered a dedication ritual. In the case of graves and cemeteries, Latter-day Saints believe that the ordinance of dedicating a grave, when done with the proper priesthood authority, can make the burial ground holy (as in the graveyard being “hallowed ground”). It also serves to protect the burial ground “until the Resurrection.”1

Historian Jonathan Stapley wrote an article about the history of Latter-day Saint funeral and burial practices in which he notes that the concept of dedicating graves stemmed from dedicating bodies in preparation for burial and seems to have developed during the 1870s. The earliest documentation of a formal grave dedication that Stapley was able to find took place in 1875.

The Church has published official instructions for dedicating a grave which are available online.

2. Is it true that there is a temple built on a burial ground?

No, but in some cases, they’re nearby. For example, the Winter Quarters Temple was built adjacent to the old Winter Quarters pioneer cemetery. During the winter of 1846–1847, many of the Saints who had left Nauvoo spent the season in Winter Quarters while they waited and prepared to immigrate to the Salt Lake Valley in the spring and summer. Sadly, many of them died and were buried in a small burial ground. The Church History Library has a copy of the Winter Quarters Sexton’s Records, 1846–1848, which lists those who perished.

Additionally, the Kirtland and Manti Temples are located near cemeteries. The Kirtland Cemetery (above) could easily be seen from the upper floor of the Kirtland Temple. The Manti Temple functions as a beautiful backdrop in this image of a grave in the Manti Cemetery.

Building a temple next to a cemetery may seem like a strange choice in location, but it really isn’t that uncommon. To understand the practice, some context is helpful. Throughout the world, many churches include burial grounds on their properties. Such burial grounds are called graveyards and are typically associated with a specific religious denomination. Burial in a particular church’s graveyard is often restricted to members of that church’s congregation. Usually, the church or its congregants handle the upkeep and maintenance of the graveyard.

Cemeteries differ from graveyards. Sometimes cemeteries have a chapel on the property where funerals or other ceremonies are held, but they are not usually associated with a specific religion. Unless it is a private burial ground (like Arlington National Cemetery or a private family cemetery), cemeteries generally serve the wider community. They are maintained by the city or county in which they reside or by the private entity that owns the land.

No matter the type—graveyard or cemetery—most communities and religions view such land as special. Thus, building a temple near a cemetery may be one of the most appropriate places to do so. This is especially true when one considers that a temple is where sacred ordinances are performed on behalf of the dead.

3. Where can I find programs, eulogies, or photographs from the funerals of prominent historical Church members?

The Church History Library holds funeral programs for several prominent Church members. These materials are not held in a single collection. Some of these items are found within the collections of individuals who attended the funerals, knew the deceased individual, or generally collected such items. For instance, a copy of the program for John Taylor’s funeral can be found in the F. H. Weight scrapbook collection.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, funeral services were sometimes reprinted, published, and distributed by printing companies. For example, in 1888 The Juvenile Instructor Office printed and distributed a pamphlet titled The Life and Labors of Eliza R. Snow Smith; With a Full Account of Her Funeral Services. Most printed programs, though, were simple, like the “Order of Procession” printed for the funeral of Jedidiah M. Grant or like this program for the funeral of former patriarch John Smith.

Eulogies and funeral sermons can also be found in the Church History Library’s collections. One example includes the sermon given by W.W. Phelps at the funeral of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Phelps delivered the same sermon a second time in 1855 for the Deseret Theological Institute. Another example includes an address given by Clarissa S. Williams in 1921 at the funeral of Emmeline B. Wells. In May 2007, LaJean Carruth transcribed a sermon given at the funeral of Mary Fielding Smith in 1852 from George D. Watt’s shorthand; Thomas Bullock also recorded original minutes from Mary’s funeral.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was not uncommon for funerals to be photographed, documenting the elaborate nature of American Victorian–era funerals. Many funerals were held in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and at tabernacles in other cities throughout Utah. The Tabernacle was often decorated in honor of the deceased: drapery, bunting, and flowers were common funeral decorations. The funerals of Church leaders in Utah were often grand affairs that drew large crowds, as seen in this photograph of Heber J. Grant’s funeral. Photographs of the funerals of John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Richard Ballantyne, and Lorenzo Snow speaking at the funeral of Alvin Nichols are also part of the collections at the Church History Library.

Sometimes special music was composed for and performed at the funerals of prominent individuals. Joseph J. Daynes, for instance, composed a funeral march which he performed on the “Great Tabernacle Organ” at Wilford Woodruff’s funeral. And, in 1877, Charles W. Penrose and George Careless composed the song “Parting” for Brigham Young’s funeral.

4. Does the Church History Library have photographs of cemeteries or gravesites?

The Church History Library has many photographs of cemeteries and gravesites from all over the world. Such photos document how grave markers, burial grounds, and funeral customs have changed over time. They also can show how funerary practices differ between cultures. Some keywords that can be used to find information and images about cemeteries and graves in the Church History Catalog and elsewhere include cemetery, gravesite, graveyard, burial ground, burial site, grave, burial, funeral, death, sexton, gravestone, and grave marker.

Here is a sample list of photos of cemeteries and gravesites held in the Church History Library collections:

5. Does the Church History Library have death certificates and cemetery or sexton records?

It is important to note that death records and death certificates do not exist for every deceased member of the Church. This is especially true for pioneers who died on the trail. The practice of issuing death certificates did not become common until around the turn of the 20th century. With that said, death records can be found in several places in Church History Library collections. For example, William Huntington, the sexton in Nauvoo, kept a record of burials from 1839 to 1845. The Winter Quarter sexton’s record for 1846 to 1848 is also held at the library. Other cemetery records can be found in the library’s collections, such as the Farmington City cemetery record, 1854–1928, the Kimball and Whitney cemetery report for 1911, and the Combined list of Florence Nebraska Cemetery burials compiled in 2000. There are also some death records for missionaries who died in the field. The records are not comprehensive and range in time span from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century.

The Deceased Member Records collection (CR 298 7) is another place to look for death records. This collection is made up of individual Latter-day Saint membership records spanning from 1941 to July 1988. During that period, after a member of the Church died, their membership record was forwarded to the Church Historian’s Office (now the Church History Library). If a member of the Church died between 1941 and 1988, it is likely that their member record can be found in that collection. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, many of the records are incomplete. This collection is comprised of over 500 microfilm reels arranged alphabetically and chronologically and has not been digitized. However, it can be accessed both at the Church History Library and the Family History Library.

Bonus Question: Where are the former Presidents of the Church buried?

Most of the former presidents of the Church are buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery; however, four are not. Joseph Smith, Jr. is buried in Nauvoo, Illinois. Brigham Young is buried in a private cemetery on 1st Avenue in Salt Lake City, Utah. Lorenzo Snow is buried in the Brigham City Cemetery, and Ezra Taft Benson is buried in the Whitney Cemetey in Whitney, Idaho.