Sacred Ground: The Smith Family Cemetery in Old Nauvoo, Part I

By Julie Maddox, Joseph Sr & Lucy Mack Smith Family Association Newsletter Editor

“The place where a man is buried is sacred to me.” Joseph Smith Jr.

I feel the full emotion of that statement, sitting here on the wooden bench in the Smith Family Cemetery in Nauvoo. Resting in the shade, I can see things just as Anina Luff has described them, and “watch white butterflies dance above the blue salvia,” especially picturesque at dusk as the sun sets on the Mississippi River.

Summer of 1991 found Anina MacKay Luff, great great-granddaughter of Joseph and Emma, and her son Lachlan MacKay, driving from Independence, MO, to the Family Cemetery at sunset. “The Mississippi River,” she said, “was mystical, beautiful.” Anina and her brother Daniel Larsen and their families were a significant part of preparations for the Aug. 4, 1991 formal cemetery dedication. They wanted a “beautiful serene place where people can sit and dream and ponder connections with loved ones passed on.” And each year since they have come to beautify and plant flowers in this sacred spot.

Here I contemplate matters of the soul and eternity. Our thoughts look to that great morning on which loved ones will rise and “strike hands” and exclaim, “my mother, my father, my brother, my sister.”

I see the tombstones of Father and Mother Smith, our first parents in Nauvoo. For a brief moment I escape into reverie…. The 6’2” Joseph stands with his beloved Lucy, a mere 4’11,” at his side. During their Nauvoo years, their five living sons, and 3 daughters all married and lived here or in surrounding areas, with their young families. They gathered to support the work of the Restoration. I see Joseph and Lucy, their hearts drawn out still, desiring God’s greatest blessings upon their precious and ever-expanding family.

Sons Samuel and Don Carlos rest here. Agnes Coolbrith Smith, widow to Don Carlos, writes that she has “removed her dead into Emma’s garden.” Also here is Robert B. Thompson, Joseph’s secretary, who worked with Don Carlos in the printing basement, where the two contracted “quick consumption.” A plaque marks the resting spot of 24 in total, including two of Joseph and Emma’s children, close family friends, Caroline, William’s wife, Emmeline, wife of Joseph III, and two of their children.

Enshrouded just a few feet away, lie the bodies of Emma and Joseph and Hyrum.

Have not Father and Mother Smith watched over this cemetery, aware of its complex history and the various journeys of their children and their children’s children over the past 170 years? Because truly, this small cemetery evinces a peace that belies its “complex history,” or– perhaps in the eyes of our parents–exemplifies a uniting and healing of their extended and beloved family.

EARLY HISTORY 1844 – 1856

As the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were brought into Nauvoo, thousands lined the streets to receive their martyred prophets and grieve their deaths. Emma, Mary Fielding and Lucy were engulfed in grief. From 8 am to 5pm, 28 June 1844, tens of thousands paid their respect to their beloved leaders.

A large reward was offered for the body of Joseph dead or alive, and enemies threatened to desecrate the bodies. After the public viewing, the coffins were quietly filled with sandbags and placed in a vault near the temple. Meanwhile, W. W. Phelps preached a funeral sermon. The bodies were kept in the Mansion Home until the night of June 29.

Great turbulence marked the evening of June 29, as the mob approached Nauvoo to “set fire to the city,” and “burn the bodies of those martyred.” A summer storm gathered over the Mississippi. At the mansion house, a “small group of trusted men removed the bodies” for a secret burial in the basement of the uncompleted Nauvoo House. The storm broke with a “crashing frightful peal of thunder,” giving these few men an unsettling pause. Then when the bodies were safely buried and the dirt replaced, rain pounded the ground, dispersing not only the mob and their ammunition, but also erasing any evidence of a nighttime burial.

Records indicate that the bodies were moved perhaps twice more, once when construction began again on the Nauvoo House and once once to Hibbard’s grove. Finally, in utmost secrecy, Emma entrusted 3 men to bury the bodies behind the homestead near the riverbank. The springhouse was then moved and placed over the bodies, and Emma planted lilac bushes nearby.

Joseph had expressed his wish to be buried near his family, and at some point close to this time, the Homestead property becomes the Smith family cemetery. Family members are moved from the Nauvoo Cemeteries near the temple to the Homestead. The springhouse disappears. After Emma’s death in 1879, the location of Joseph & Hyrum is unknown to virtually anyone but Joseph III. His younger brother David Hyrum pens the popular hymn, “The Unknown Grave.”

By July 30, 1844, there were 5 Smith widows. Don Carlos’ wife Agnes marries Mr. Pickett, a newspaper man who moved them to St. Louis. Emma lived in and was buried in Nauvoo. Mary Fielding and Samuel’s widow, Levira Clark go west with the majority of the saints. Mother Smith has told the Saints she went west, but was arthritic and walked with two canes and lived with her daughters in Illinois. She spent her last 4 years, bedridden, in Emma’s care. In 1856 Lucy was buried next to her husband southwest of the Homestead.

CEMETERY PART II WILL APPEAR IN 2016

[Thousands of friends and family visit the Smith Family Cemetery in Nauvoo each year. The beautiful surroundings are a result of continuous efforts from 1867 to 1928 to 1991 to the present to “enhance, enlarge, landscape, beautify, and increase accessibility to the grave site and to provide funding for the ongoing maintenance of the area.” The next newsletter will present a brief history of the cemetery from 1867 and share personal experiences of some of those involved in this labor.]

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