Guest Post: Redeem from Oblivion
In recent months I have been thinking a great deal about redemption. As members of the Church, one of our main purposes is to redeem the dead. It is not a light thing to become a redeemer and to walk in the Savior’s shoes. But what does it mean to redeem them? How are we supposed to do that? The glib Sunday School answer would probably involve attending the temple regularly, ideally with family names in tow. All it takes to redeem someone from damnation is their full name, at least one important date from their life, and a series of ceremonies. Congratulations! Dead person redeemed. Luckily church extraction has made it so you can go to the temple without doing any of the bothersome finding people bit. Some stranger thousands of miles from here thoughtfully redeemed my great-grandmother for me through the wonders of the extraction program (yes, I am annoyed about this.)
I have come to the conclusion that pink slips of paper are not what redeem our grandmothers, nor is checking off ordinances the fulfillment of the promise that our hearts would turn to our mothers and our mothers’ hearts would turn to us. I have nothing against doing temple work, and I do believe it is an important component of redeeming the dead. I just don’t think that is the whole picture. I believe that part of our work is to redeem the dead from oblivion, to find the stories of those who came before and to tell them. Remembrance is redemption, and that is how our hearts turn. That is how you make an eternal family.
I have been volunteering as an indexer for the Church for the last year and a half. I am completing my PhD in the history of France, so I almost always choose to do French parish registers. One of the joys of doing parish records, rather than a census or a passenger list, is that you get stories if you’re paying attention. These people aren’t my ancestors, but I rather doubt their descendants are looking for them. I can read, and find, and piece together the stories of someone entirely forgotten. For the Church’s purpose, the only thing that matters is the date of the event and the full name of the person(s) involved. There is no way for me to record or index any of the other things that leap out at you.
I remember one particularly sad day reading a village register that recorded a baby’s birth, then a few days later the mother’s death, then a week or so later the baby’s death. Each record is discrete, so only by reading sequentially do you realize they are part of a larger story. Many village records show that the people were illiterate, signing legal acts with an X with the help of the parish priest. That bereaved husband left no diary to tell this story; the baby had no descendants to seek this record. That moment of supernal joy followed by deep grief is lost entirely, but for me reading the register.
Each of those acts went separately into the church’s system, and it would take a skilled researcher to put it back together again. Who would bother? How could you trace illiterate peasants, and why would you if they weren’t your ancestors to begin with? But I know them. I read their story and imagined what that would be like. A young mother frightened and excited all at once. A father first relieved and joyful, then grief-stricken and destroyed. A baby, who barely lived long enough to have a name. I will remember. Remembering their pain, remembering a baby that never grew to have descendants is a redemptive act and one that ties us more surely than any ordinance to the dead. I will know those I have found when I meet them. They won’t need a heavenly name tag. I have come to know them here, so I will recognize them there.
How do you remember those who have lost? What does it mean to you to redeem the dead?
Em is a lifelong member with a handsome husband and no kids, finishing a PhD in modern French history.