History and Presence, Chapter 5: The Dead in the Company of the Living

By February 21, 2017

Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the fifth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi?s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous installments are the IntroChapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, and Chapter 4.

Chapter 5 begins with a ghost story, or more properly, a story that probes the inextricable relationship–ongoing and mutually conscious–between living people and dead people in 20th century Catholicism. At the center of such relationships is the presence of a bloodied, tortured Christ, and all around the edges of this relationship are rituals of grieving, remembering, reconstituting, and “waking” the dead. Orsi’s haunting chapter narrative builds towards his own encounter with one family on the fringes of the “Catholic supernatural underground,” whose bedroom shrine for their deceased young child had become a portal to the world beyond for those who see(k) and served as a lay counseling center for people in search of connection with loved ones both living and dead.

Orsi introduces the Catholic concept of a victim soul like that child, “innocents to whom God gives the gift of suffering in their bodies as a grace for others.” The chapter also explores changing Catholic funeral practices in the 20th century as church leaders sought to routinize and sanitize mourning and burial, but without ever completely being able to stamp out elaborate funerals as a kind of dark, rich Catholic performance art. It put me strongly in mind of the powerful Mormon taboo against hysterical grief, popular music or even highly personalized memorialization at (?all ?just North American) funerals, and the prominent placement of a doctrinal “plan of happiness” talk at each one, regardless of the age or circumstances of the deceased. Don’t be too sad, “they’ve only gone ahead,” after all. [1]

Against this overall cultural shift towards “paschal” funerals, emphasizing joy and resurrection instead of wallowing in heady, blood-soaked sorrow (but thereby in an important sense “losing” the very dead they commemorate), Orsi gradually unwinds the story of this unnamed shrine family, to which he was apparently both personally and professionally drawn. In his account Orsi is both Catholic insider welcomed as a fellow seeker, and somewhat bemused participant observer, as he sketches a thick Geertzian description of people encountering supernatural apparitions in a framed picture hanging in the late child’s room. Though clearly skeptical, he also cannot deny his own perceptive faculties… one is reminded of Joseph Smith’s assertion in the mainstream account of his First Vision that “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.”

Orsi notes the dead are everywhere present in Catholic practice: in Mexican mortuary devotion; in informal roadside shrines; in cemetery decorations, “the Catholic dead refuse to be permanently separated from the living.” Likewise, for Mormons, “neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:15). Supernatural apparitions that strengthen family connections and communications beyond and through the veil of mortality are part of shared Mormon lived religion. Stories of ancestors reaching back into the realm of the living to assist with genealogy work are commonplace. Experiences with discernible presence of spirits of the dead have roots back into Mormonism’s founding moments and still remain a vibrant nourishing current in LDS culture, especially with the temple as a locus. There is a strong kindred resonance with Catholics faithfully praying someone out of Purgatory and Mormons “releasing” someone from spirit prison by performing proxy ordinances of baptism, endowment and sealing.

While Mormonism has no precise equivalent to “victim souls,” the sanctifying power of suffering, especially in children, is a familiar trope. Consider the adoring cultural reception and quasi-canonization, for example, of Mormon mommy blogger and burn survivor Stephanie Nielsen, as someone whose dramatically altered life plan gained renewed spiritual meaning when cast as redemptive suffering, bodily mortification in the service of bringing souls to Christ. Thus death or disfigurement or disability becomes a kind of alternative “mission call” in some Mormon narratives, blurring the line between this life and the next.

Audrey Santo’s gravestone, Worcester MA

Near the end of the chapter, Orsi mentions another “victim soul” around whose silent and beatific young body another Catholic cult of intercessory healing and supernatural communication spontaneously arose: Audrey Santo of Worcester, Massachusetts (1983-2007). “Little Audrey” survived near-drowning at age 4 in the family pool and lived another 20 years without speaking or being able to move. Nursed round the clock by family and volunteers and visited by a stream of faithful supplicants, she was associated with the holy presence of Christ and saints like Padro Pio, and in turn her presence–brought by ambulance, on a stretcher–marked healing rallies in the city of Worcester (filling Holy Cross stadium once a year, and at masses on her birthday, etc). The religious statues and images placed in her room were said to weep pure olive oil, which her family then soaked onto cotton balls and sent to people seeking divine blessings; her bedroom contained a consecrated tabernacle of the communion host, some of which were said to bleed. [2]

In my very white suburban American Mormon upbringing, I was taught to consider such apparitions and demonstrations, along with oujia boards, as superstitious, borderline Satanic, anachronistic remnants of the religious apostasy the restoration had triumphantly swept away. Perhaps in other cultures besides mine there was a greater degree of syncretism between Catholic and Mormon lived religions? (I kind of hope so, and please add your experiences into the comments if they were different). But any religion that embraces the totality of embodied lived experience, from the blood and sweat and tears of birth to the blood and sweat and tears of death, has to engage with the physicality of human experience. No religion exists in the abstract only; Mormon relationships with olive oil (not to mention essential oils) and blood and Sacrament bread and the laying on of hands and sacred images, sacred places, and sacred texts, have a lot to say in conversation with Catholic traditions. Both religions have marvelously rich and real and complex encounters between the living and dead, whose realms are never entirely cut off from one another.

[1] “How Beautiful Thy Temples, Lord” Hymn No. 288: “How beautiful some aid to give / To dear ones we call dead, / But who indeed as spirits live; / They’ve only gone ahead.”

[2] For more on Little Audrey, see here and here. Side note: in a filmed interview for a Catholic cable program, her mother mentioned that in the early days even “Mormons were fasting for her.” Turns out her family home (now turned into a gift shop and shrine, as a foundation in her name seeks her canonization) is in the same neighborhood as the university where I teach. Small world, interesting coincidence. OR IS IT??

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Comparative Mormon Studies


  1. Really nice, Tona. This chapter makes me wonder what scholars (who want to use presence) ought to do with spiritualism, magic, technology, and the occult. Something along the lines of: how far should presence go? Can relationships with the dead, et al., count as relationships with the divine?

    Comment by Jeff T — February 21, 2017 @ 8:37 am

  2. A nice précis and good comparative work, Tona. Thx.

    Comment by Ryan T. — February 21, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

  3. Excellent work. Thanks, Tona!

    Comment by J Stuart — February 22, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

  4. I’m late to this, but really enjoyed it. Thanks, Tona.

    Comment by Ben P — February 22, 2017 @ 4:06 pm


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