President Thomas S. Monson loved to be among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He seemed to be “at home” wherever he went.
This was especially true when he went to Germany, which he visited multiple times, dating back to his early years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He made his first trip to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1968 when he was assigned to supervise the Europe area, which comprised all the missions in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Later, when those missions were transferred to another member of the Twelve, then-Elder Monson retained responsibility for all countries behind the Iron Curtain.
I went with President Monson and his wife, Sister Frances J. Monson, to the former German Democratic Republic. I wrote about that visit in a recent Church News article. I’m focusing this article on our visit to St. Paul’s Cemetery in Dresden on Aug. 26, 1995.
We went to the cemetery just a couple of hours after we arrived in Dresden on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
President Monson, then first counselor in the First Presidency, asked to be taken to the grave of Elder Joseph A. Ott, a missionary from Utah who died Jan. 10, 1896, after having fallen a few days earlier into cold water as he was disembarking from the ship that carried him to his field of labor. Elder Ott never preached the gospel of Jesus Christ as a missionary in Germany.
At Elder Ott’s grave, President and Sister Monson stood in light rain under large blue and white umbrellas, speaking in soft tones with Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf.
I met Elder and Sister Uchtdorf for the first time on that visit to Dresden. Elder Uchtdorf, a German citizen, was a member of the Quorum of the Seventy (members of the First and Second Quorums of the Seventy are now referred to as General Authority Seventies). He was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 2004, and as a counselor to President Monson in the First Presidency in 2008. After the death of President Monson on Jan. 2, Elder Uchtdorf resumed his place in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Dresden Stake President Siegfried Sacher and Frank Apel, former president of the stake, accompanied the Monsons and Uchtdorfs to the grave.
President Monson told us of a visit he made to Elder Ott’s grave about 15 years earlier. He described how he, accompanied by several local members of the Church, had gone to the small cemetery in the darkness of night. In contrast to the light rain on the day of our visit, he said a cold rain had been falling all day on his earlier visit.
President Monson said that by the illumination of a flashlight he read the inscription on the headstone, which gave dates of Elder Ott’s birth on Dec. 12, 1870, in Virgin, Utah, and his death on Jan. 10, 1896, in Dresden.
On that earlier visit to the grave, President Monson said, he noticed that the marble headstone had been polished, the ground covering the grave had been weeded, and the “bit of lawn” there had been immaculately edged. Someone had placed flowers on the grave.
President Monson said he asked who had been taking such good care of the grave. He learned that a young deacon, Tobias Burkhardt, cared for the grave to honor a missionary who had died on a mission for the Lord. President Monson said Tobias told him, “I feel close to missionary work when I care for this grave where the body of a missionary rests.”
“Tobias thought he would never get to go on a full-time mission,” President Monson said, noting the restrictions on travel at that time outside East Germany. He added, “Tobias was among the first group of young members who were given permission in 1989 to leave the DDR to serve missions in other countries.
Over the years, other Church members tended the grave. A little while before President Monson’s return visit to the cemetery, they had cleaned the headstone and had gold leaf applied to the inscription. The headstone, a near-white stone obelisk, was distinctive in the cemetery where most markers were of darker stone.
Our visit to Elder Ott’s grave took on an air of reverence as President Monson spoke about a young missionary who died while answering a call to a mission field far from his Utah home, and the efforts of a young German deacon to honor that long-ago missionary who had come to labor among his ancestors.