113th Annual Conference - Portland, Oregon
Friday, November 6 - Sunday, November 8, 2015

Crossing the Veil: After-Death Communications Among Mormons

Jean Little, Brigham Young University

As members of a religion that believes in the afterlife, Mormons have an interesting framework for interpreting and describing after-death communication (ADC) experiences. This paper explores the ways that certain motifs in ADC narratives among LDS people seem to suggest that there are common folk beliefs about death and the afterlife, particularly in areas where the church doesn’t have firm doctrine. 

Proposal: 

My paper will explore after death communications (ADCs) and their folkloric significance within the Latter-Day Saint (LDS or Mormon) culture. As members of a religion that believes in the afterlife, Mormons have an interesting framework for interpreting and describing ADC experiences. Their memorates can be considered a variation of personal revelatory experiences, which Tom Mould describes and analyzes in depth in Still, the Small Voice. When told among LDS people, these narratives are usually treated as very personal and sacred, although some are shared in a more lighthearted way.  In this paper I will discuss ways that the interpretation of ADCs supports tenets of LDS doctrine, how certain pervasive motifs may support common folk beliefs (particularly about topics that the LDS church doesn’t have firm doctrine on), and ways that the narrative structure is influenced by cultural expectations.

I have separated the way I define doctrinal beliefs and folk beliefs for the purpose of this case study; however, in practice there is actually quite a bit of crossover in these two areas. While many of the core Mormon doctrines are universally accepted by practicing members of the Mormon faith, there are a number of topics in which people disagree on the dividing line between doctrine and speculation. This variation may be influenced by several factors including the family traditions and upbringing of individual members, their interactions with other faith groups, and variation in perspective that naturally occurs between leaders. This variation may also be influenced by the fact that the LDS Church has a lay clergy; very few teachers and leaders have been formally trained for their positions.

In my study, I have relied on several sources for information. As a member of the LDS faith, I have a significant pool of narratives to draw from. Not only have I heard them told by friends and acquaintances, but a number of these narratives have been told and retold in my own family. Having been immersed in the Utah Mormon culture for nearly a decade, my experiential knowledge of cultural practices is different than it would be if I had only interacted with the Mormon community for research purposes. My experience gives me deeper insight into the folkloric practice of the group, and has greatly facilitated data collection. The primary way that I have found individuals to interview is telling groups of friends and acquaintances about my research, sometimes sharing my own ADC, and asking them if they have had similar experiences. I have been surprised to find that whenever I bring up the topic of my research in a group setting, there is at least one – and often more than one – person who has a personal experience that they would like to share. I have also drawn on the folklore archives in William A. Wilson Folklore Archives at BYU and books on Mormon folklore.