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The William Gilbert Odyssey

Part 3: Bringing the Living and the Dead Closer Together

By David G. Burton

Members of the William Gilbert Burton family met at the Jordan River Utah Temple to perform ordinance work for deceased family members.

Several days before Sherry Gamble was to arrive for the family reunion, I asked Heavenly Father if everything was prepared so that we would miss nothing essential. As I prayed, two thoughts came to mind. One was to leave some of the temple-ready names for the family members who were unable to be with us that day, so they could do them later. The other impression was a name, Mary Ann Coath, which Sherry and I had come across in our research. We did not think we had enough information to do her temple work. Among other things, we did not know when or where Mary Ann died. However, because of this impression I decided to give it one more try. I went to the genealogy library and showed the material I had, and they said there was enough information to do the work. I made a temple-ready disk with her name on it and hurried off.

The night before the May 9 temple day, a group of family members got together to do the baptisms for those we planned to do the other temple ordinances for the next day. As various family members were being baptized for deceased family members, my brother-in-law whispered to me, "Who was that?" I said, "Who was who?" "That Nicholes person." I whispered, "One of the Burtons married a Nicholes. Why do you ask?" He responded, "I know they are very happy that we are here tonight doing their work for them. I can feel their joy!"

The next morning a group of newfound family members and friends came to the temple to do the work for the people whose work we had begun the night before. After the temple session, Sherry pulled me aside and said, "Do you know what happened? I got Mary Ann Coath's name for the initiatory and endowment session. She communicated with me during the initiatory session, letting me know how grateful she was that her temple ordinance work is being done and that now she is forgiven and can progress on. Later, throughout the endowment session Mary Ann thanked me for not forgetting her. She wanted to know what the temple session meant, and throughout the experience I explained the meaning of the ceremony. Mary Ann Coath thanked me over and over. She was so happy that her work was being done in the temple."

After the session ended, we went to the reunion dinner. Over 50 people attended. Most of them had never met before. I read the old birthday card that had been written so long ago, and we sang "Happy Birthday" to William Gilbert Burton. I also read a letter that William Gilbert wrote to his posterity in August 1892 after the death of his wife Hannah Tregale on June 14, 1892.

I learned that day that temple work brings the living and dead closer together. I also learned that it brings living family members together who otherwise may not have drawn closer together. It would be hard to say who was blessed more, the living or the dead. Truly, both are blessed through temple work.

There are some other things I have learned from this experience. One is that it's awfully hard to get information out of dead people—they don't say very much. So talk to the oldest living relatives you have as fast as you can before they pass on and you lose an irreplaceable opportunity to discover invaluable things that will make the journey much easier. Besides, in the process you get to know some wonderful people in your family.

Currently we are trying to locate descendants of William Gilbert Burton's oldest son, from his first wife Mary Ann Coath. His name was William Gilbert Burton Jr. He came from England with the Burton family, but instead of going west to Salt Lake City, he stayed in Williamsburg, New York. At the time, Williamsburg was a borough of New York City and a point of debarkation for immigrants. Some of the immigration party that William Gilbert Burton Sr. led from England became ill and had to stay quarantined in Williamsburg until they were cleared to leave. William Gilbert Burton Sr. cared for the sick and left a year later with the remaining members of the party. However, his eldest son stayed behind. This is all we know about William Gilbert Burton Jr., but we hope to be able to link him with the other family members someday.

Being randomly issue a license
plate with "MAY 9" on it had
special meaning to David G. Burton
.

I have come to know that my ancestral family members are not simply dead people. They are as real and alive as anyone in my living family. These amazing people have just passed out of our sight and are waiting for us to seek them and their help. It has been said that the more family history we do for our ancestors, the more we think of them not as dead but as a living part of our lives. I miss them and look forward to the day when we meet again and I can thank them for what they did for me. Hopefully by then I will have repaid their gift to me by completing the work for them.

P. S. Several years after writing this article I bought a new car. When I went to get a new license plate at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the clerk handed me a new license plate from a random stack of new plates being handed out that day. Stamped on it were the letters "MAY 9."

Every event in this article happened just as I have described it. All of this could have seemed unreal if it weren't for the fact that I experienced all of these events firsthand.

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Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah