Honoring apostle

Exhumation effort yields no discernible human remains

An endeavor April 19-22 to exhume the body of 19th century apostle Parley P. Pratt in Arkansas with the intent to move it to Salt Lake City yielded no discernible human remains — but it was by no means a wasted effort, according to Elder Pratt's descendant who spearheaded the attempt.

"You'd have to have been here and felt what we've felt to understand that we are a little sad, but we are certainly not disappointed," said Robert J. Grow of Sandy, Utah, president of the Jared Pratt Family Association and a great-great-great-grandson of Elder Pratt.

He said descendants now feel they have done all they can to try to fulfill Elder Pratt's reported dying wish: that his body be taken home for burial. "But in a way," Brother Grow said, "it's sort of like rebuilding the Nauvoo Temple. This is now Parley's place, because his family has been here, and we've met with descendants, and we feel good about it."

Elder Pratt was murdered May 13, 1857, near Van Buren, Ark., by a California man who blamed him for the break-up of his family, though the wife repeatedly said the man had broken their marriage himself through his drunkenness, abuse and religious intolerance.

The Arkansas descendants to whom Brother Grow referred are members of the posterity of local residents who comforted the dying Elder Pratt and saw to his burial. They include Zealy Wynn, who witnessed the murder and who opened his home to prepare Elder Pratt's body and hold an inquest, and William Steward, who prepared a walnut coffin and pine box for the burial. The assassinated apostle was buried in the Wynn family cemetery.

"There were a lot of reasons to come here," Brother Grow said, speaking by cell phone from the burial site on April 23, as the excavated grave was being filled in. "One was to retell Parley's story, more accurately. And for the Pratt descendants to come and say thank you to the people who were here. For us to know we had done everything humanly possible to fulfill his dying request. And for us to continue to recognize that the most important thing about his death here was his dying testimony."

Elder Pratt died affirming his belief in the gospel of Christ as revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith and asked that his dying testimony be carried to President Brigham Young and the Church, Brother Grow said. He expressed the wish that the events of Elder Pratt's death not overshadow his life, legacy and testimony of the gospel "which he evidenced through his almost quarter-century of apostleship as he repeatedly traveled the world."

Brother Grow said many of Elder Pratt's estimated 60,000 descendants have repeatedly asked him as family association president to see to the exhumation and removal of the remains. "I used to tell them I didn't know what we'd find if we dug, and we didn't know where to dig anyway," he said.

But study of historical records and accounts — and the advent of scientific tools — made the endeavor seem more feasible. The effort began in earnest in 2006, eventually involving the use of ground penetrating radar to identify the likely location of Elder Pratt's grave, about 40 yards from a monument erected at the cemetery site in the 1950s by Pratt descendants and eventually donated to the Church.

Brother Grow noted that one of the historical accounts was from Elder Pratt's missionary companion, George Higginson, who reported that he returned after the burial and removed the body in a second shallow grave to thwart any plans by enemies who might come to desecrate the body.

"The place we excavated was a grave that was not normal depth; it was about 2 1/2 to 3 feet deep," Brother Grow said. "It was moved a little ways away from where you might have thought the right place was, but it was the only grave signature in this area of the cemetery. The closest other graves were more than 50 feet away, and they are nice, neat rows, clearly in a family group."

He said the family is certain the identified grave is Elder Pratt's. But exhumation efforts in Arkansas typically don't yield anything after 50-60 years, he added. "The remains become integrated and mixed with the red clays of Arkansas."

As for Elder Pratt, "we believe his remains are in that clay, but they are not clearly distinguishable as his remains — or as human remains at this point — because of the passage of time and the soils in which he was buried and how shallow he was buried."

Brother Grow said, "We feel we have been led to this place," and added that the grave has now been dedicated.

"Parley is now here among both old friends and some newfound friends," he said.

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