Holiness to the Dead—The House of the Dead (Part Three)

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[ THE STORY SO FAR:  In Part One, five intrepid adventurers embarked on a tour of the new LDS temple in Manhattan. In Part Two, they visited the baptistery and Creation Room of the temple, and learned very little about what actually goes on in them. And still the tour grinds onward. . . . ]

A clash of symbols

Our next stop on the tour was the Terrestrial Room, although Brother Creigh never did refer to it by name. This was a high-ceilinged, very bright and spacious chamber just down the hall from the Creation Room, and painted all in eggshell white. The light came from teardrop-shaped fixtures suspended from above. Several rows of theater seats were arranged in gently curving arcs before a sumptuous ruffled curtain hanging inside a proscenium arch at the front of the room. The room might have functioned as a particularly high-class playhouse or cinema.

"This is the next room to which the visitors come for instruction on their visits to the temple," said Brother Creigh, "and again it's very symbolic. The high ceilings indicate that we're moving more and more into the presence of the Lord, while the brightness of the room is symbolic of the light of Christ that's shed forth upon the earth."

Rather glaringly, he didn't say a word about the symbolism of the curtain at the front of the room. I stayed alert during the rest of the tour for a chance to pose him that question, but the opportunity never came—at least, not where I could ask it for the benefit of the entire group. I was quite interested to hear how he would answer, given that the heavy curtain is actually there to conceal a much gauzier curtain called the Veil. And the Veil is symbolic of the veil that separates our material world from the afterlife.

As, again, I explained to my companions later that evening, the endowment ceremony continues in the Terrestrial Room. After some further instruction, handshaking, and bad acting, the heavy curtain is raised to reveal the Veil. Symbols borrowed from Masonry such as the square and compass have been stitched into the fabric, and an officiator proceeds to explain their meanings. The endowees then approach the Veil in orderly queues. As each arrives at the Veil in turn, he or she reaches through slits in the fabric to embrace a temple worker stationed on the far side. This embrace is known, or used to be known before the endowment ceremony was abridged in 1990, as the "Five Points of Fellowship," and is another blatant borrowing from Masonry. Locked in this position (which, when enacted by an old male temple worker and a young female petitioner, some Mormon friends of mine smirkingly referred to as the Six Points of Fellowship), the temple worker quizzes the endowee on the passwords and handshakes taught during the ceremony.

Most of the passwords are short, but the last one is quite long and bears reproducing if only because it's so much fun to say quickly. Over beers that evening I repeated it from memory for my companions, with only a brief pause or two: "Health in the navel, marrow in the bones, strength in the loins and in the sinews, power in the priesthood be upon me and upon my posterity through all generations of time and throughout all eternity."

When the petitioner has successfully passed the test (and no one fails because a prompter is standing by to fill in any gaps in memory), he or she is invited to pass through the Veil and symbolically enter the Kingdom of Heaven by moving into the chamber beyond, the Celestial Room. So when Brother Creigh spoke his next words to the tour group—"Let's now move on to the Celestial Room, in the same fashion that temple patrons would do so"—I believed irrationally for a moment that this was the route we were about to follow.

But it was not to be. "The Celestial Room is the very heart of the temple," he said. "It represents the highest level of Heaven, and it's a place for sacred meditation and prayer. I ask as we enter that we all preserve the reverent atmosphere of the Celestial Room by not speaking until we've left it again."

He led us out the door of the Terrestrial Room and down a short and very prosaic hallway. There would be no passing through the Veil for us that day.

Super Masonic

Before we continue, a brief word about Mormonism and Masonry. Though most Latter-day Saints downplay or even pooh-pooh the connection, Joseph Smith was a Mason, and he borrowed liberally from Masonic rites when he created the first version of the endowment ceremony in 1842. This is ironic in light of the fact that the Book of Mormon struck many people as a rabidly anti-Masonic work when it was published in 1830.

The Book of Mormon is, of course, a product of the place and time in which it was written—upstate New York in the late 1820s. Those years were a period of intense suspicion and hatred of Masonry, so it's not surprising that the latter half of the book is rife with stories of "secret combinations"—gangs of robbers and murderers who join together, bound by secret signs and blood oaths, to sow suspicion and dissent, to overthrow all that is good and decent, and to profit by their mutual black iniquity. One typical passage in Ether (the section which perhaps prompted Mark Twain famously to declare the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print") condemns the activities of these marauding bands in unequivocal terms:

And it came to pass that they formed a secret combination, even as they of old; which combination is most abominable and wicked above all, in the sight of God;

For the Lord worketh not in secret combinations, neither doth he will that man should shed blood, but in all things hath forbidden it, from the beginning of man.

And secret combinations were much on the mind of the people of New York thanks to the abduction of William Morgan.

In September 1826, hooded men burned a printing press in Batavia, New York, and beat the owner severely. The press had just produced proofs of a book exposing the rites and covenants of Freemasonry. Shortly thereafter, the book's author, William Morgan, was abducted, never to be seen again. Five men, well-known Masons all, were tried for Morgan's kidnapping and presumed murder in January 1827 at Canandaigua, New York, not far from Joseph Smith's home. Three of the five were acquitted, while the two others received light jail sentences. Further trials the next month resulted in more acquittals, and an anti-Masonic fervor the likes of which the country has never seen since swept New York and many surrounding states.

By 1842, however, the pendulum had swung the other way again for Masonry. It had enjoyed an enormous resurgence in popularity in the years after the Morgan affair blew over. The Mormons were growing into a powerful voting bloc in the state of Illinois, and Masonic candidates for public office would have been foolish not to curry Mormon favor. So it was that Joseph Smith, a man once painted as fiercely anti-Masonic, underwent a meteoric advancement through the ranks of Masonry at the hands of Abraham Jonas, Grandmaster of the Illinois Lodge and a prominent candidate for public office. On March 15, 1842, Joseph Smith received his initiation as an Entered Apprentice Mason, the lowest of Freemasonry's three degrees. The next day, he received the Fellow Craft and Master Mason degrees, despite the normal thirty-day waiting period required before advancement.

On May 4, 1842, a scant fifty days after first participating in the Masonic mysteries, Joseph Smith introduced a new ordinance, the "endowment," to his most trusted followers in a room above his red brick store in Nauvoo, Illinois. This new ordinance bore a striking similarity to the Masonic initiation rites—a parallel which could not have been lost on Joseph's inner circle, since most of them were Masons as well.

I won't belabor the many correspondences between Masonic rites and the Mormon endowment. Suffice it to say that, the moment I mentioned the compass and square stitched into the Veil to my friends that evening, Jim said, "Hey, that sounds like Masonry."

I guess some things are easier to see from the outside.

Heaven means never having to say a word

Trailing Brother Creigh, our silent group entered the Celestial Room. I don't have much to say about the experience. The room's ceiling was even higher than that of the Terrestrial Room, the appointments grander and more ornate. Instead of theater seats, it contained groupings of expensive chairs and couches. The walls were bright white but not painfully so. The overall effect, though, was less of welcoming and warmth than of cold, remote formality.

I looked around the room, trying to spy out the place from which endowees would emerge after passing through the Veil. In other temples I've seen, there's a sort of baffle in the Celestial Room screening the Veil from direct view, but in this room there was no such thing. I did spot a couple of doors in the Veilward wall, and I can only presume those provided ingress to endowees.

My eyes came to rest on the high stained-glass windows set into one wall. Each window depicted a stylized tree with tangled branches and white fruit. I'm guessing that this was either the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from which Adam and Eve ate, or, more likely, the Tree of Life of which the prophet Lehi dreamed early on in the Book of Mormon. What struck me about the depiction of the trees, though, was that in some cases the white fruit hung in pairs, resembling nothing so much as tidy little scrotums.

I wanted to point this out to Laura, but we were in the Celestial Room and no one was speaking. Not that utter silence was something I'd ever observed in operational Celestial Rooms. On the occasion of my first endowment, in 1986, I was told that the Celestial Room is in fact the only place where the endowment can be freely discussed and questions can asked. Not that this discussion ever rises above the level of a murmur, but at least it does take place.

(Speaking of speaking, upon the successful completion of my own endowment—August 15, 1986, in the Salt Lake Temple as it happened—my father hugged me in the Celestial Room and said to me, "No matter how many times I go through it, I always learn something new." He meant the endowment ceremony itself, in which he had participated regularly for at least a quarter of a century. Why undergo the ordinance so many times? Because, of course, on subsequent visits you're doing it by proxy for dead people.)

But whether filled with quiet murmurs or deathly silence, the Celestial Room is hardly my idea of Heaven. Any place where I'm afraid to sit on the furniture and I can't try to make my wife laugh is not a place where I care to spend eternity.

An ear for dialog

After a decent interval, Brother Creigh led us out of the Celestial Room again. The group breathed an almost palpable sigh of relief. And if my companions were any indication, they also carried with them a large misconception about the purpose of the Celestial Room. As Jim commented later that evening during my explication of the endowment ceremony, "You mean you can't just visit the temple and go directly to the Celestial Room to meditate?"

"No," I said. "You can only get there by going through the whole ceremony, with the video and the robes and the handshakes."

"What a ripoff!" said Jim. "I got a completely different impression from what the guy said on the tour."

Our tour group bunched up again near the elevators. I ended up standing near Brother Creigh, and while we waited to be ferried up to the sixth floor he tried to strike up a friendly conversation. "So where are you visiting us from today?" he asked me.

"We live here in the city," I said, "but I'm originally from Utah."

"Oh! Where at?"

"I grew up in a town called Kaysville," I said.

"I grew up in Florida myself," said Brother Creigh. "Never even made it west of the Mississippi until after I was twenty-three."

We chatted pleasantly for a moment or two more. If anything surprised me about the conversation it was that Brother Creigh completely failed to ask me whether or not, being from Utah, I was a member of the Church. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have been surprised. I'm sure the tour guides had been carefully instructed not to make assumptions about the participants on the tour, to avoid giving inadvertent offense.

Either that or my ear piercings made him wary.

A throbbing in the temples

The sixth floor of the temple was devoted to weddings—or, to use the more proper terminology, "sealings." Whereas Mormons consider a wedding to be a civil bond that dissolves upon the death of either party, sealing is an ordinance by which a man and a woman are spiritually married "for time and all eternity." The ordinance can, as I'm sure you have guessed, only be performed in a temple.

Furthermore, the endowment ordinance is a prerequisite for sealing. Young Mormon men usually undergo the endowment at the age of 19, before serving missions, so they have plenty of time to absorb the oddity of it before being sealed to a bride. But for many young women, the first endowment comes the day of or maybe the day before their nuptials. If you think normal wedding-day jitters are bad, try throwing an endowment ceremony in on top of them!

Our first port of call on the sixth floor was the so-called Bride's Room. This was a glorified dressing room, complete with vanity desk, a little arrangement of settees, and several mirrors. The walls were done in reverent shades of a color that hitherto undiscovered portions of my brain tell me was lavender or mauve.

"This is where, before her wedding, a bride is able to prepare for the coming ceremony, together with her mother and a few other female relations," said Brother Creigh. "It's furnished with every amenity a new bride could possibly need—which means, of course, a lot of mirrors."

An appreciative ripple of laughter rolled through the room, though beside me Laura bristled.

"You know," Brother Creigh went on, "I just got a call from my daughter in Utah last week, and she told me she's engaged. August fourteenth she'll be entering a room in Salt Lake City just like this one to prepare for her own sealing. It's strange to think that as many times as I've been in the temple, this is the first time I've seen the inside of a Bride's Room. There is no Groom's Room, you know. What they do before the ceremony I couldn't tell you."

He was cracking wise again, in that self-consciously eye-twinkling Mormon way. I leaned over to Laura and whispered, "Strip club."

By this point Laura was so keyed up you could have used her to tune a piano. She let out a laugh that could have brought down the walls of Jericho.

The tour was already leaving the Bride's Room, and people pretended they hadn't noticed. Laura glared at me in chagrined mock-fury, and she punched me in the arm.

Victory is sweet.

A passion for the Christ

As we moved along the wide main corridor of the sixth floor, Brother Creigh pointed out waiting areas for wedding attendees and more examples of what he referred to as "original art." It's true, there were a lot of paintings hanging on the walls of the temple. But not all of them were what I would have called original.

'Alma Baptizes at the Waters of Mormon' by Arnold Friberg (detail) I'm not deriding the quality of the work. I am saying that, having spent my first 28 years as a member of the Church, I recognized most of it. In most instances what we were seeing were not in fact original works but skillful copies of well-known pieces by important Mormon artists. For example, a painting I had seen hanging near the dressing rooms adjacent to the baptistery was a copy of an Arnold Friberg work, "Alma Baptizes at the Waters of Mormon," originally commissioned as an illustration for the Book of Mormon. Near the Bride's Room I thought I had picked out a piece in the style of Minerva Teichert, a portrait of Mary or some other important Biblical or Book of Mormon woman.

There on the sixth floor we passed one painting that I recognized as a partial detail of a work called "The Second Coming." Laura stopped dead.

"Wow," she whispered to me. "I never knew Jesus was so hot. I'd let him lay hands on me."

'The Second Coming' by Harry Anderson (detail) "Eww," I said, shaking my head. "This is a copy of a Harry Anderson, and I've never really liked the way he portrays Christ."

"What's not to like? This Christ looks like he doesn't take shit. Like Willem Dafoe."

"Well, okay," I said, tugging her along.

A whited sepulchre

Brother Creigh was pointing out fancy architectural details. "Again, take a look at the marvelous detail that's gone into these cornices and moldings. Work like that doesn't come cheap, but like we say, nothing is too good for the Lord."

Actually, the architecture did look a little cheap to me—cheap and bland and tasteless, in a nouveau riche kind of way.

Bob saw it a little differently. "You know," he said, leaning into the center of our little group, "it's all very beautiful and immaculately maintained, but with the cold air and the silk flowers and the white walls and the hushed atmosphere—it's not like a house of worship. It's a funeral home."

"Yes, yes, yes!" said Liz, jabbing the air in Bob's direction with her finger. "That's it exactly, what I was thinking!"

As Laura and Jim added their agreement to the general chorus, I was having an epiphany. A funeral home! Of course! A temple was an edifice with far more focus on the dead than the living. It really was a mortuary. Why hadn't I ever picked up on that before?

Because some things are easier to see from the outside.

Yes, but what happens in the Boston temple?

The penultimate stop on our tour was the sealing room at the end of this main corridor. This was where actual temple wedding ceremonies would take place. The sealing room was a somewhat close rectangular chamber with thirty or forty chairs lining the walls. In the center of the room stood an altar covered with velvet and surrounded by a cushioned perch just the right height to kneel on. Mounted on the two side walls, facing each other perfectly across the altar, were two large mirrors. Below one of the mirrors was a bench chair wide enough for two people to sit on.

We took seats around the outside wall. Brother Creigh stood near the altar. "I see none of you took the wide seat under that mirror," he said with a smile. "I guess that means everyone here is married already. That's where the prospective bride and groom sit while the officiator addresses the wedding party before the actual ordinance is performed."

He went on to explain how a temple sealing joined a man and woman into the eternal family stretching back into the infinite past and forward into the everlasting future. "The bride and groom kneel here, across from each other at this altar, and in these opposing mirrors they see themselves as part of that endless chain reflected back and forth to eternity, ancestors trailing back forever in one direction and descendents in the other."

He did not describe much more than that of the ceremony, which also consists of the bride and groom giving each other the secret handshakes from the endowment ceremony across the velvet top of the altar. He did, however, bring up the matter of proxy sealings, whereby dead couples receive the ordinance with living persons standing—or rather, kneeling—in for them at the altar.

My attention wandered a little, I will admit. There was a beautiful little stained-glass window set high in the back wall of the sealing room, and as I looked at it in fascination I realized that the natural-looking daylight shining through it could not possibly be natural. Imagineering: it's a powerful thing.

I'm not sure quite how it happened, but while I wasn't paying attention one question or another set off a chain of associations that led to Brother Creigh's attempting to untangle the complicated skein of theology that permits a man whose wife has passed away to be sealed eternally to another woman but does not permit a woman whose husband has passed away to be sealed eternally to another man. A discussion of polygamy and how it's bound up with this matter is beyond the scope of this report, but suffice it to say that the topic is endlessly diverting, especially to a non-LDS crowd attempting to understand it.

As Brother Creigh led us out of the sealing room, a handsome, strapping fellow—to my eye and ear, half of a gay couple who were studiously not holding hands during the tour—was asking him, "If there's temple marriage, is there such a thing as temple divorce?"

While our erstwhile guide chased down that particular hare (the answer, by the way, is yes, sort of), Laura said to our small gang, "Oh, my God. When he pointed out that no one had taken the marriage seat, how much did I want for me and Lizzie to go sit there together?"

"I think the two fellows there were considering it as well," said Bob.

Brother Creigh was leading us to a stairwell that would take us back to the third floor. "So yes," he was saying, "in that situation the man and woman could certainly be married civilly. It's just that a temple sealing could not take place."

"So even though the man could be sealed to another woman," said the handsome man, "he couldn't to her because she's already sealed to someone else."

"That's it exactly," said Brother Creigh.

"Yeah," said Laura as Brother Creigh passed out of hearing, not loudly but still two shades louder necessary to speak just to the other four of us, "but you can fuck whoever you like."

I thought I saw the ghost of smile flit across the lips of the man ahead of us, who I believe was the handsome man's partner.

The obligatory coda to any LDS function

We emerged from the stairwell onto the third floor, skinned off our protective slippers and deposited them in a bin, and bid Brother Creigh farewell. We were back in the non-temple portion of the building, and our final stop on the tour was the "cultural hall," a sort of glorified gymnasium where a refreshment table had been set up. Pleasantly plump folks behind the table served us large oatmeal raisin cookies and plastic cups of cold water. I was mildly disappointed and a little embarrassed that my people weren't serving their guests red punch, or green Jell-O.

This was apparently where the Q&A at the end of the tour was meant to take place, on this brightly lit basketball court where a dozen round tables had been set up for tourgoers to rest their hindquarters after a stressful hour of touring. Missionaries stood by ready to answer the deepest of questions and to sign people up for a personalized visit at their homes.

Bob, Jim, Liz, Laura, and I finished our cookies, drank our water, and headed for the exit. Not that the victuals weren't appreciated, but we were more than ready to tromp up Columbus Avenue through the noise and stink of an Upper West Side night to a bar called Peter's, where the beer is cold, the dominant decorative motif is the female nude, and the conversation is so loud you need to shout to be heard. When we got there, we talked ourselves hoarse.

I say these things humbly in the name of Informed Consent, amen.


Tours of the Manhattan temple continue every day but Sunday until June 5th. If you'd like to get in on the action, make your reservation now.

Bob has posted his impressions of the temple tour in his own blog, under the title "A Spy in the Temple."

And lest we give the secular humanist viewpoint undeserved priority, a young evangelical Christian has posted his impressions of an earlier LDS temple tour in South Carolina.

[ original post:  http://shunn.livejournal.com/139594.html ]

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 26, 2004 12:37 AM.

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