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Many years ago, while my wife and I were visiting what was still known as Leningrad in what was still known as the Soviet Union, it occurred to me that a fitting symbol of the previous century might be the concentration camp.
In these appalling institutions, Hitler's Germany and Lenin's and Stalin's Russia committed mass murder with modern industrial efficiency. (Less developed societies like the Cambodia of the Communist Khmer Rouge managed to kill their own millions, but had to content themselves with more primitive and labor-intensive methods.)
In his dystopian story "1984," the British novelist George Orwell coined the term "nonperson" to describe what such enterprises sought to make of their chosen victims. Jews, Gypsies, "capitalists," "counterrevolutionaries" — these targeted peoples were dehumanized, exploited as slave labor or for medical experimentation, and then disposed of.
Millions simply disappeared in the Soviet gulag, the Nazi death camps, the Cambodian "killing fields" and related horrors. No cemeteries exist for them. No headstones. No traces. In some cases, entire towns and villages were erased. No memory of them survives, nor any memory of the extended families who once lived in them.
A very different impulse motivates service in the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the family history research that supports those temples. They're the anti-gulag.
In the Latter-day Saint understanding, every human person who has ever lived or will ever live is a distinct and eternal individual. We lived before we came into this world, and we will continue living beyond it. We cannot ultimately be destroyed.
Latter-day Saints nonetheless believe that certain ordinances or rituals required for salvation must be performed on behalf of every person who has ever lived. If these ordinances aren't received during mortal life, they must be offered vicariously, by proxy, after that person has died. They'll then be accepted or rejected by those to whom they've been offered, since consciousness and free will survive death.
The task before the Latter-day Saints is enormous. Many hundreds of millions of people have lived and died without hearing the message of Christ or receiving the ordinances of salvation. Surviving records are fragmentary, at best.
But, as deceased persons are painstakingly identified, the ordinances are performed — separately, carefully, patiently — for each one. They aren't performed collectively, in bulk, but one by time-consuming one for each departed individual.
The contrast with totalitarian extermination camps could not be clearer. Whereas the ideologies of the camps devalued people as members of unwanted classes, "liquidated" them, and sought to destroy any memory that they had ever lived, family historians attempt to retrieve and preserve the identity and story of each person who has gone before. And every man, woman and child for whom temple ordinances are performed is remembered, loved, valued and served as a distinct individual.
Those who have died are, in most ways, beyond our reach. We can't easily tell them that we love them. We can't feed them or give them money. But we can still remember and honor them, and learn about and from them.
Memorial Day originated as an occasion to mark the graves of those who had fallen in the American Civil War. It was then generalized to apply to all those who had died defending the United States, and is now commonly regarded as a time to remember all of our deceased family members. This Memorial Day is a fitting occasion to reflect on those who have preceded us, to recall their stories and to deepen our appreciation of their role in what we, our families, our communities, and our nation have become.
Doing so may not seem practically useful or urgent, but it's still very important. To lose a sense of our past is to lose our identity.
Unfortunately, holidays in contemporary America often lose their significance as "holy days" and become merely additional days for recreation (or just lounging about) during "long weekends." Recreation is important, of course. But so is memory. So is reflection. So is gratitude.
We would all benefit from learning more about our ancestors, recalling their lives, and honoring their sacrifices, struggles and contributions.
However, Latter-day Saints also believe that, although separated from them by the veil of death, we can serve them. We can, in some measure, repay them for what they've given us. A truly glorious principle.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.