Are there worse things than the death of a child? That's what I was asking myself earlier this week. I can think of a handful of worse things, but the death of a child is pretty damn horrific.
I attended the wake of a young toddler a few days ago. The child was a relative of a co-worker; I had never met the child before.
The weight of the sorrow, the sadness and horror of it all is overwhelming. As a parent, this is your worst nightmare, you turn your back and your child is gone. There are few words to describe how sad it was. The tiny coffin is heartbreaking.
My friend was doing as best as you can, but the child's mother looked like hell.
I think it's safe to say that hell on earth is losing your child so young. It must sound like an exaggeration, but I don't think so. I don't want to describe more of what I saw, more of the pain - it's a little like child birth, you want to distance yourself from the pain and forget as soon as possible (for self protection).
So I can certainly imagine why the idea of sealing families was so appealing to early mormons, and continues to bring people to the LDS church today. When you've experienced a loss so enormous, so unimaginable, a person might do anything to feel better. You do anything to believe that death can be cheated.
My friend's family is not mormon, and there is no way I would bring this up at such a hellish time (I hope that goes without saying).
Yet I believe there is a strong, human impulse to comfort, to say that the loved one is in a better place, that we will be with them again. And who am I to get in the way of that? I have no answers.
For my non mormon readers, Joseph Smith said he had a vision of his brother Alvin*, and he encouraged him to start performing baptisms and sealing ordinances by proxy. This would get around the religious questions of the time - what would happen to someone who died before they heard of mormonism, or who wasn't "saved". All of a sudden, it didn't matter if your loved one wasn't mormon or around to be mormon, you could still be with them in the afterlife. Of course, there are all sorts of caveats, but for such loss, it makes sense that families would do anything to dull the pain.
Some of the caveats were that the baptism needs to be performed with people here on earth, who have physical bodies. Mormonism has a unique emphasis (to my mind) on the physical body. It has to be done in the mormon temple, where only the most worthy mormons can enter. The baptized, deceased person (in the mormon version of purgatory) would then be free to accept the baptism, and then eventually be married (by proxy) and be in heaven with their family. The exact details are confusing, and can cause hours of debate with some circles of mormons (I could link to faithful mormon discussions here, but choose not to). But the point of all this is the ability to feel some slight comfort in the face of such sadness and grief.
This is simply what I was thinking about, after watching such a loss from the outside earlier this week.
*I found this article on the mormon curtain that discusses Alvin's death. The article is about 2/3rds down the page by Steve Benson. I haven't checked the references, so please take this with a grain of salt. It certainly seems very plausible to me that at Alvin's funeral, the minister did not give comfort to Joseph Smith's family and that later, the idea of baptism by proxy was more attractive.