'A love story, a drama, a miracle': Funeral 89 years later reunites couple, posterity

Apostle Abraham Owen Woodruff and his wife Helen May Winters Woodruff were separated in 1904 by death and more than 1,000 miles when they succumbed to smallpox within two weeks of each other, one in Mexico City, Mexico, and the other in El Paso, Texas.

Now, in what President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency termed a "love story, a human drama and a miracle in our time," their remains have been exhumed from their lonely graves in two countries and reinterred in Salt Lake's City Cemetery alongside three of their deceased children and other members of the Woodruff family, including President Wilford Woodruff. Reinterment of the remains July 17 followed a funeral earlier that day in the Salt Lake Cottonwood 6th Ward.President Monson, second counselor in the First Presidency, presided over the service, which had markings more of a joyous family reunion than of a funeral. Attending were more than 200 family members, including June Woodruff Stewart, 91, the only surviving child of Abraham Owen Woodruff and Helen May Winters Woodruff. They had four children.

Other General Authorities attending were Elder James E. Faust of the Council of the Twelve, and Elders Loren C. Dunn, John E. Fowler and Adney Y. Komatsu, all of the Seventy.

In addition to President Monson, speakers at the service included three grandsons of Elder and Sister Woodruff - Serge Ballif Woodruff of Hemet, Calif., Roger H. Woodruff of Thousand Oaks, Calif., and Wilford Bruce Woodruff of Salt Lake City - and a granddaughter, Judy Jones of Salt Lake City. Another grandson, Bishop Richard N. Woodruff Lambert of the Cottonwood 6th Ward, Salt Lake Big Cottonwood Stake, conducted the service.

The speakers referred to circumstances that led to Elder and Sister Woodruff being buried more than 1,000 miles apart. Elder Woodruff, who was called to the Council of the Twelve in 1897 at age 24, had taken Sister Woodruff with him on an assignment to the Mormon colonies in Mexico. While there, Sister Woodruff, who had served on the general board of the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association, contracted smallpox and died on June 7, 1904. Because of regulations that prohibited transporting bodies of smallpox victims, she was buried in the American cemetery in Mexico City.

After his wife's death, the young apostle expressed his heartbreak in a letter to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. He then traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where he also began showing symptoms of smallpox and was transported to a hospital in El Paso, Texas. Although he appeared to be recovering, he died unexpectedly June 20, 1904, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in El Paso.

In recent months, family members arranged for Elder and Sister Woodruffs' remains to be exhumed and returned to Salt Lake City. In November 1992, Eric C. Olson, a Salt Lake attorney and close friend of the Woodruffs, prepared documents in English and Spanish and traveled to Mexico City along with Roger H. Woodruff, a grandson, to supervise the exhumation and transportation to Salt Lake City of Sister Woodruff's remains. Arranging for this required the approval of Mexican authorities and of Sister Stewart, the Woodruffs' surviving daughter.

In April of this year, four family members representing three of the Woodruff's children, met in El Paso. There, in the company of two stake presidents from El Paso, the remains of the apostle were removed and flown to Utah. The original headstones on both graves were also transported to Utah to be placed on the graves in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

President Monson referred to the July 17 service as a homecoming marking the Woodruffs' return to Utah from their Church assignment to Mexico. "I commend each of those persons who will long remember and ever tell how they felt when they brought together the remains of Owen and Helen Woodruff," President Monson said.

"Husbands and wives should not be separated, even their physical remains. . . . To Elder and Sister Woodruff, the words spoken by John Taylor in the Doctrine and Covenants pertaining to Hyrum and Joseph are fitting: `In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated.' "

On Nov. 9, 1899, President Monson said in referring to Elder Woodruff's journal, the young apostle was assigned by President Lorenzo Snow as the Church's colonization agent. President Monson noted that Elder Woodruff humbly wrote in his journal of that assignment: "I appreciate the confidence of President Snow and my brethren. I've had a desire all my life to be of use to my people."

"Isn't that a great spirit of service?" President Monson remarked. "The Protestant minister Harry Emerson Fosdick said: `Men will work hard for money; they will work harder for other men. But men will work hardest of all when they are dedicated to a cause. Until willingness overflows obligation, men fight as conscripts rather than following the flag as patriots. Duty is never worthily performed until it is done by one who would gladly do more if he could.' "

President Monson said Elder and Sister Woodruff died in the service of the Lord. "Now while their bodies may have lain in El Paso and Mexico City, what about their spirits?" he asked. "A quotation from Joseph F. Smith answers this question:

" `This gospel revealed to the Prophet Joseph is already being preached to the spirits in prison, to those who have passed away from this stage of action into the spirit world without the knowledge of the gospel. Joseph Smith is preaching that gospel to them. So is Hyrum Smith. So is Brigham Young, and so are all the faithful apostles that lived in this dispensation under the administration of the Prophet Joseph. They are there, having carried with them from here the holy Priesthood that they received under authority, and which was conferred upon them in the flesh; they are preaching the gospel to the spirits in prison; for Christ, when His body lay in the tomb, went to proclaim liberty to the captives and opened the prison doors to them that were bound. Not only are these engaged in that work but hundreds and thousands of others; the elders that have died in the mission field have not finished their missions, but they are continuing them in the spirit world.' "

President Monson said, "Perhaps they have been hoping that their physical remains might somehow be brought together again someday."

He testified that it was only under the Spirit of the Lord and intervention of the Holy Spirit that Elder and Sister Woodruffs' remains were obtained and returned for burial in Utah. He referred to an account mentioned earlier in the funeral by another speaker relating how Roger H. Woodruff visited Mexico City and, leaving a tourist group, went to see if he could locate his grandmother's grave. When he found it, he discovered it had been declared abandoned, and her remains scheduled to be exhumed within two months and reburied in a common grave so her plot could be resold.

"Do you think it was just chance that one of your kinsmen happened to be in Mexico City just before they were going to destroy what remained of Helen Woodruff?" President Monson asked. "Do you think it was just by chance that he was driven to do something?

"God bless you who brought together this wonderful couple. A woman of strength, a woman of character, a woman of service, and her noble husband, Abraham Owen Woodruff. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his classic poem `Requiem,' spoke of the likes of Owen and Helen when he said:

" `Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

" `And the hunter, home from the hill.' "

Concluding, President Monson said: "Welcome home, Helen. Welcome home, Owen."

Music during the funeral was provided by a chorus of about 50 women in the Woodruff family. A quartet, also comprised of family members, sang as well.

Several family members related to the Church News events that led to the return of the Woodruffs' remains to Utah. After the death in 1990 of Helen Woodruff Anderson, a daughter of Elder and Sister Woodruff, papers and journals of the couple were assembled and donated to the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. Bishop Lambert said the library staff "helped facilitate the completion of this long, overdue event" in returning the couple to Salt Lake City.

One speaker at the funeral noted that, in a memorial service on June 26, 1904, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Elder Seymour B. Young, a president of the First Council of the Seventy, said he hoped that at some future time the couple could be brought back home and reunited with loved ones. Before the July 17 funeral and reinterment, Wilford Bruce Woodruff, chairman of the Woodruff family organization and president of the Salt Lake East Mill Creek Stake, told the Deseret News: "As plans for this significant event have proceeded, a wonderful spirit of unity has grown in the family. We felt that a husband and wife separated 89 years and by more than 1,000 miles should be brought together and buried side by side. It is the result of a series of wonderful experiences."

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