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Mormon missionary's brother shares miracle preceding his death, pays tribute to his life

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 9:36 a.m. MDT

Elder Josh Burton served his LDS MIssion in Guatemala. (Courtesy of Robert Burton) Elder Josh Burton served his LDS MIssion in Guatemala. (Courtesy of Robert Burton)

Editor's note: In this piece, Robert Burton, the older brother of Elder Josh Burton, who died while serving as a missionary for the LDS Church, reflects on the accident that took Josh's life and shares a glimpse into Josh's personality.

On the morning of Saturday, July 20, 2013, Elder Josh Burton, age 23, of Leavitt, Alberta, Canada, jumped into the back of a pickup truck with three other missionaries and five members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help a Guatemalan family move the structure of their home to a safer location.

Though the road to the home was sufficiently dangerous that some local medical workers avoided it altogether, as a missionary for the LDS church, Josh had dedicated the last 20 months to serving the people of Guatemala, and he knew this family needed his help.

Elder Josh Burton served his LDS Mission in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Robert Burton) Elder Josh Burton served his LDS Mission in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Robert Burton)

While ascending a narrow road along a steep hillside, the pickup's driver nudged closer to the edge, trying to make room for an oncoming vehicle. Suddenly, the shoulder gave way and the pickup began to roll, throwing out those in the back until it finally stopped. Though each sustained injuries, all the missionaries could move — all except Josh. Emergency responders transported the unconscious Josh to Cobán and airlifted him to Guatemala City.

Josh's diagnosis was bad: a massive concussion and two severely broken vertebrae. That afternoon, Dr. Asmitia performed emergency surgery, implanting eight pins to stabilize Josh's broken spine. The surgery concluded after midnight. On Sunday morning, President Curtiss of the Guatemala Cobán Mission called my parents, Allan and Heather, informing them that Dr. Asmitia had given Josh a 1 to 3 percent chance of ever walking. If he did recover, it would take up to a year and a half before they could see significant progress. Knowing Josh's passion for life, they were devastated.

Elder Josh Burton's brother Robert observed that his greatest concern was helping the people he served as a missionary for the LDS Church in Guatemala.  (Photo courtesy of Robert Burton) Elder Josh Burton's brother Robert observed that his greatest concern was helping the people he served as a missionary for the LDS Church in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Robert Burton)

"Yet we had hope," my dad said, "that a 1 to 3 percent chance wasn't impossible where the Lord is involved."

After hearing about the accident, both missions in which Josh served — the Guatemala City East Mission and the newly formed Guatemala Cobán Mission — joined family and friends in fasting for him, praying for a miracle.

And the miracle came. After hanging up with the Burtons, President Curtiss joined Dr. Cameron, the LDS Church's regional medical advisor, and others for an initial examination, to see if any motion existed in Josh's legs.

"Josh, lift your legs," Dr. Asmitia said.

Yet under heavy doses of medication, Josh failed to even respond.

Elder Josh Burton, right, died in a tragic accident while serving a mission for the LDS Church in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Robert Burton) Elder Josh Burton, right, died in a tragic accident while serving a mission for the LDS Church in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Robert Burton)

This time Dr. Asmitia shouted, "Josh, lift your legs!"

Clenching his fists, Josh exerted all his strength to move his legs. Slowly, he lifted his knees from the bed. Then, he raised his right foot.

The doctors were shocked. Some cried, while others shook hands. Dr. Asmitia's knees gave way, and his assistant had to grab his arm to keep him from falling. One doctor went to the corner and raised his hands in prayer, knowing he had seen God at work.

Dr. Asmitia pointed upward.

"It all came from up there," he said.

In tears, Dr. Cameron called my mom and dad to share the miracle.

"In 38 years of practice, I have seen a lot of miracles," Dr. Cameron said, "but I have never seen something like this before."

Elder Josh Burton served as a missionary in the Guatemala City East Mission and the newly formed Guatemala Cobán Mission.  (Courtesy of Robert Burton) Elder Josh Burton served as a missionary in the Guatemala City East Mission and the newly formed Guatemala Cobán Mission. (Courtesy of Robert Burton)

My mom immediately booked a flight to Guatemala City to be with her son. After helping her fourth child, Christian, board a plane for the LDS Missionary Training Centre in Provo, Utah, where he was to report that Wednesday, my mom caught her own flight south. By Monday night she was in Dallas, Texas, awaiting a connecting flight to Guatemala City the following day.

Yet by the time my mom arrived in Dallas, Josh's progress had taken a turn for the worse. Due to swelling of his brain resulting from the concussion, Josh's lungs and heart began to fail. After all the doctor's efforts to resuscitate him, Josh passed away at 11:15 p.m. on Monday.

In the days that followed Josh's death, many friends and family arrived at our home to offer their condolences. In each visit, the comforters become the comforted as my dad shared the tender mercies he and my mom saw in Josh's passing.

"When the Lord showed us the miracle recovery of Josh's back, he let us and everyone that prayed for Josh know he heard our prayers. There's no doubt about that. But God knew it was Josh's time, so once he'd shown us, he called Josh home," my dad said.

For the third child in our family, Elder Denny Burton, who reported to the MTC on the same day as Josh and who now serves in the Belgium Netherlands Mission, the gospel of Jesus Christ gives the right perspective to his grief. "I've always known the gospel plan was true. So I realize this isn't a test of my faith, it's just a test of my patience."

Josh was the second oldest of nine children and was homeschooled through elementary, middle and high schools. Upon his return from missionary service, he planned on studying music and business.

Josh's two maxims were "life is music" and "live life to the fullest," and he worked hard to put these into practice. As a young teenager, Josh first discovered the magic of Fredric Chopin's "Fantasie Impromptu" and began filling his life with classical mentors like Beethoven, Grieg, Ravel and Rachmaninov.

From that point forward, Josh drank, ate and breathed classical music. As an accomplished pianist, he began composing for the piano, and in the summer of 2010, Josh packed Cardston's Carriage House Theatre for his first concert of his own compositions. Josh moved his audience from laughter to tears as he shared both the excitement and the depth of feeling he found in music. To the delight of his audience, he even did a back flip in his suit pants and dress shoes.

That same year, Josh produced and distributed his first CD, "Sketches," which he made available on YouTube and iTunes. He then went door to door in Cardston and surrounding communities, selling his CDs to earn money for his mission.

In his compositions, Josh sought to express what mattered most to him, feelings he could only describe through music.

"If you listen, really listen," Josh promises in his CD's dedication, "I think you will hear something more than just notes on a piano, something deeper within the music. And my hope is that you will be better for having heard it."

In all of his endeavors, Josh's goal was to uplift others. On one occasion, a mother in Cardston saw a young man walk past her little girl in the yard. Several minutes later, the mother saw the young man return, hand her girl an ice cream cone and walk on. When she asked her daughter, "Who was that?" she replied, "Josh Burton."

During his lucid moments in the hospital, Josh's chief concern was for his investigators and fellow missionaries.

"He kept asking for his planner," Dr. Cameron said.

At his funeral on Monday, a table displayed many of Josh's personal articles. In the center were his missionary shoes, worn and cracked from so much walking, calling to mind President Kimball's declaration, "My life is like my shoes, to be worn out in service."

As Josh's older brother, I find it nearly impossible to paint the life of my best friend in so few words. Yet those who knew Josh will attest that his life was his message. He loved deeply, lived fully and served faithfully.

I am proud of my three brothers serving as missionaries: one in the Netherlands, one on his way to Mexico and one wherever God may send him.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company