Title: Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death
Editors: Stephen Carter
Publisher: Signature books
Genre: Narrative Non (mostly!) Fiction
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 257
Reviewed by Andrew Hamilton for the Association for Mormon Letters
When Devery Anderson at Signature Books contacted me and asked me if I would like a review copy of Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death, he did not tell me there was going to be a “cost” for me to read this book, that HE was going to make me cry and that other authors in the book were going to make me cry as well. More on that later.
Moth and Rust is a small, unassuming paperback volume at first glance. The imagery on the brown cover is subdued and a perfect match for the tone and content of the book. In size and shape it very much resembles a standard sized LDS “Triple Combination.” Though I doubt that was done on purpose, it was very convenient for me. I took it to work and for the better part of a week this size allowed me to keep it in my apron pocket where I could pull it out and read it during my breaks. I soon found that Moth and Rust spoke to me enough that along with reading it for “review” I incorporated reading it into my daily meditation/spiritual study time until I completed reading it.
Stephen Carter, the editor of Moth and Rust, is excellent at his craft. For about a decade now he has been the editor of Sunstone magazine and has become an expert at editing together an engaging, fascinating, thought-provoking publication. Carter is also a skilled author whose previous works include the Book of Mormon Comic series iPlates and the both entertaining and informative Mormonism for Beginners (it is seriously a top notch, Grade A work – mini-review: seriously, do yourself a favor and buy a copy). Along with editing Moth and Rust, Carter wrote the introduction and contributed one of the essays (See “Last Song” p. 242).
Carter starts the introduction to the book by stating “It seems like this should be a boring book. After all, Mormons have death all figured out, don’t we?” (ix). He then gives a humorous two sentence summary of the LDS “Plan of Salvation” as only he can. To his question, I believe that he is exactly right. As a whole, we Mormons do tend to think that we have death all figured out. Since we have a “plan” that tells us “where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going,” we think that there is no question about life and death that we cannot answer. We are here to get a body. If we live a long life then we are here to fulfill a “mission.” When we die, especially if we die young, then we have been “called to the Spirit World to fulfill a mission.” Everything that happens to us in life and death, be it joy or suffering, happens for a “reason” and is a part of “God’s plan for us.” For some Mormons, this ability to tie everything up nice and neat with a bow makes a lot of sense, brings order to disorder, and provides relief amidst suffering.
But what about when it doesn’t, what about those Mormons who are not comforted by our “answers for all of the questions”? A friend of mine lost his father when he was 13. People in his ward gave him a typical Mormon “comfort” answer: “Don’t be sad, God just needed your father more than you did.” But this answer only made him angry. He said, “I was 13. I needed my father, and if God needed him more than I did then that only made me hate God.” Another friend lost his father when he was in his early 20’s. He was the oldest of a number of children, the rest of whom were still at home. Some of his siblings were not yet in their teens. His father was an LDS stake president when he died, so Elder Neal Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve was sent to the funeral. Before the funeral Elder Maxwell held a private meeting with the family. While ministering to the family he addressed these rote Mormon cultural answers about death. He told them that some people might say to them that their father had been “called on a mission” or that “God needed him more than you do.” He instructed them to not believe those answers. Of course they needed their father, he said. God could never need him more than they did. He told them we do not have all of the answers about death and that we do not know why some people die so very young while others live to be very old, and that we cannot say for sure why some suffer so horribly while others go quickly. Sometimes death just happens and the answer from God that applies to one, may not apply to all.
In his introduction, Carter acknowledges that “Moth and Rust” is for my two friends, and for all of those who would find comfort in Elder Maxwell’s statement that we do not have all of the personal answers about death. Carter states that “death refuses to be confined to a box and put on a shelf alongside our food storage” and that when we are forced to face death we may find that “we can no longer take refuge in our ideas about the past or in our hopes for the future, and we are forced into being right here, right now” (pp. x-xi). If you have ever been uncertain about death, if the pat Mormon answers are not necessarily your answers, if you have ever meditated on death, mulled over death, ruminated about death, thought about death, written or spoken about death, or in any way experienced death, then Moth and Rust IS for you.
The book is divided into five sections that are all themed. The sections are: “Passages,” “Piercing the Veil,” “Fleeting,” “A Wider View,” and “A Single Soul.” The essays are numbered sequentially within each section. The shortest contributions are a single page long; most are about 3-5 pages. The longest item in the book is an 18 page script excerpt, titled “Eve, Dying,” from a play called “The Plan,” which was written by the person who is perhaps Mormonism’s greatest playwright, Eric Samuelsen. The writings in this book take on several forms. While the back cover describes it as a work of “Narrative Nonfiction,” this is not entirely accurate. Most of the writings are personal essays about experiences with death, stories about the writer’s experience losing a loved one, a “near death” type experience, or a life event that caused them to muse on death and think about life more deeply. Others are essays that are also works of nonfiction that focus on the philosophy of death. However, this book also contains the aforementioned play excerpt, several poems, and several fictional short stories including an “excerpt” from a future “New History of the Church” volume that explains how the LDS Church made it through a future “Zombie Apocalypse.”
When you read Moth and Rust, and I say when because I think that everyone with a connection to Mormonism should read this book, you will discover writings that will make you ponder and think, chapters that will make you chuckle and laugh, and contributions that will make you cry and even weep. There are 46 chapters in the book so it is impossible to tell you about them all, but I want to highlight my experiences with a few of them.
In the opening section “Passages,” Paul Malan has an essay called “Mormon Enough” (p. 7). In it he tells the story of his father experiencing a major stroke while he was on an LDS mission in Santo Domingo. In the days following, as his father lay in a hospital, Malan and his family experienced grief, uncertainty, and red tape. After remembering his father’s counsel to “remember who you are while you still have time to make a difference,” Malan took charge of the situation and got his father back to the USA. Then, even though he was no longer an active or believing Latter-day Saint, he found that he was “Mormon Enough” to give his father a “blessing of release” allowing him to pass from this life into the next. In this same section, L. Hadley has a very somber personal story about how she realized that her abrasive and even abusive grandmother had a dark secret that impacted their relationship because it caused her to see her own “ghost” in Hadley (“She Saw a Ghost” p. 19).
John Hatch’s essay, “Cords of Memory” (p. 26), also in the “Passages” section, was the first one that made me tear up as he narrates the loss of his mother and the tough decision that he had to make about what to do with her bungee cord collection. Having a mother who took me camping and frequently used an extensive bungee collection, I could really relate to John’s dilemma. Two other essays in this section that really touched me were Jack Harrell’s tribute to his mother titled “Letting Mom Go” (p. 34) and Emily Belanger’s contribution on the “Rehearsals” that she and her grandmother experienced in their lives’ (p. 42). The “Passages” section concludes with Devery Anderson’s essay, “A Reflection” (p. 62). As I alluded to earlier, this one really gave me a good cry. In it Anderson discusses his complicated relationship with his father who never managed to be “Ward Cleaver.” Though in life they were often distant, in death they were brought together. Think Mike and the Mechanics’ “In The Living Years” with a Mormon spin.
In the section “Piercing the Veil,” Angela Hallstrom writes about the various “Heavenly Mothers” who have ministered to her in her life (“Visitations” p. 71). Tom Kimball adds a very touching tribute to his family titled “Family Ghosts” (p. 78) that will make any reader muse on the blessings brought by our often challenging connection to our family and ancestors. It’s hard to put into words just how moving Johnny Townsend’s “Drowning in Belief” (p. 87) was. Philip Mclemore’s “On the Porch” made me contemplate the connections to both my ancestors and my children, and having children of my own who have experienced depression, anxiety, and suicidality, I have to say that Luisa Perkins “The Dead Are All Around Us” (p. 96) will stick with me for a very long time.
At this rate, if I am not careful, I will end up telling you about every chapter in this book, so I will limit myself to a few more that really impacted me. Newspaper columnist and blogger Doug Gibson’s chapter “A Short Life” (p. 119) tells of the loss of his newborn son. It is the kind of story that my mother always called a “tear jerker” and I suppose that part of the reason it really gave me a good cry was because my second daughter needed surgery when she was just a few days old, but even if you haven’t experienced the loss or near loss of a child, this chapter is very moving.
Both Rachel Mabey Whipple and Eugene England made me contemplate the challenge of why some are spared and some are not, why some are blessed with life and some are taken from us, and how can a person believe in a “just” God who so unfairly seems to bless some with life while taking others from us. Fatimah Salleh’s chapter, “Breathe!” (p 133), is a POWERFUL sermon on what it means to be Black in the USA and how recent murders have forced her to have to teach her children how to not be killed. Brian Stuy (see p. 153) and Larry Menlove (p. 158) made me think deeply about the “evil,” suffering, and death found in nature and in our daily lives, even when it affects the smallest of creatures. Boyd Peterson (p. 207), writing and musing on life, death, midlife crises, and driving around Provo, Utah in his old ’65 Fairlane made me muse on life, death, my own midlife crises and the times I spent driving around Provo, Utah, in a ’73 Dodge Dart. David Pace (p. 229) has a challenging essay that addresses Mormon ideas and thoughts on what happens to those members of the Church who haven’t exactly lived up to their beliefs when they die. Lisa Torcasso Downing (p. 48) made me weep uncontrollably as she wrote about having to collect and then deliver her beloved brother’s ashes to her sister-in-law, and Jerilyn Hassel Pool (p. 241) made me laugh almost as uncontrollably when she wrote of how she taught her younger brother how to make a naughty gesture on her baptism day.
I have gone on too long. I could keep going on. Every essay, poem, story and writing in this book touched me in some way. They all made me think. Many challenged my beliefs. They definitely challenged and made me ponder on my Mormon preconceptions about death. Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Moth and Rust and see how it makes you think and feel. Just do yourself a favor and have some tissues nearby.