Flowers of Mercy


Dennis B. Neuenschwander

On May 1, 1900, a coal mine in the central Utah mining town of Scofield exploded, killing 200 men. This tragedy remains one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history. The following remarks were given at the 100-year commemoration of this incident, to which a postscript was added after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11, 2001.

I have read some of the histories of the disaster which we commemorate this day. Of particular note is the account of the near spontaneous collection of flowers throughout Salt Lake City by young and old to be sent to Scofield to somehow alleviate the terrible suffering and grief. I was moved to tears as I read from the account.

“In Salt Lake words cannot describe the scenes that took place. Every one was anxious to do their part, and the school children, … hastened from house to house gathering flowers from all the gardens in the city until almost three carloads were furnished” (History of the Scofield Mine Disaster, 57).

The flowers were placed in the baggage compartment of a special train bound for Scofield. I quote now from the account.

The flowers “were spread out on the seats two and three feet high throughout the rest of the car. …

“Everything seemed to be there that might help to cheer those who have lived out in the hills, far away from the flowers and who are now experiencing the most dreadful calamity that has ever occurred in the western country. …

“The … car, with the lilacs and cut flowers, was switched into a sidetrack near the cemetery early in the morning. The car was next to the roadway over which the long train of wagons passed as they bore the bodies to their last resting place. The doors of the car were thrown open, and as each wagon came by, it halted while Captain Barrett and his aids, … buried the coffins under lilacs and handed each driver a bunch of cut flowers for the widows and children who accompanied the coffins. At the forward end of the car, the boys in charge were almost overwhelmed by requests for flowers. Work as fast as they could, the mournful little groups of women and children, in significant black, were still there awaiting their turn for the blossoms. If the donors of the flowers and the people who helped collect them could have seen the gratitude and appreciation of Scofield they would have been repaid an hundred fold for their work. …

“Just before noon came a plea from the Finns. Their spokesman came aboard the car and said they had sixty-one dead, none of whom had a friend in the country, aside from the people of their nationality. He asked as a favor that flowers be reserved for them until their train came down the canyon. There was an abundance for all, and the man’s face lighted with evident pleasure when he was assured that all the coffins would be decorated and the graves covered with flowers. The distribution alone took nearly all the time from nine o’clock in the morning until the heavy rain late in the afternoon stopped the melancholy procession” (57–61). To these flowers were added additional bouquets from towns along the route of the train.

There is something of great value to learn from this beautiful account of the flowers. It is tragedy, grief, trials, and tribulation that come of this mortal life that draw us together. But it is the flowers we offer each other that place us on the healing road. For me the flowers represent more than words could ever convey. Truly, the flowers were the very essence of the divine. They were love, compassion, and sympathy. As such they were given and as such they were received. In my mind’s eye, I see these flowers of mercy, after a long train trip, as fresh as the moment they were picked. I believe that they must have been refreshed during their journey by the fountain of living water. The flowers let the grieving families of Scofield know that they were not alone. They required no words of explanation.

The day of tragedy has not passed. Among us still are those who suffer: the widowed, the orphaned, the bereaved, the lonely, and the victims of senseless violence, to name only a few. It is a rare person indeed who in the course of life does not taste of these. When we do, it is the flowers of compassion, sympathy, love, and mercy—sent by others who know somewhat of our feelings—that pull us through and put us on the road to healing.

John Nicholson, a speaker at one of the funeral services, said, “Sympathy is the grandest of qualities. Without it there is no power, for an unsympathetic man is wrapped up in himself and is a center without a circumference” (Utah Historical Quarterly, Spring 1973, 188).

How beautiful are the words of Christ and His Atonement that teach us of the universal need of compassion and mercy toward one another. The beautiful words of King Benjamin include these:

“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish” (Mosiah 4:16).

This same admonition is given by Alma at the waters of Mormon. He identifies compassion and mercy as characteristics of the people of God. Such people, Alma teaches, are “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

“Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8–9).

As we consider the tragedy that occurred 100 years ago, let us also consider the beauty of the flowers and everything that those flowers represented. Let us decide today that we will be more like the school children and others a century ago who were willing to provide the flowers that brought healing to those who found themselves in the midst of great tragedy and loss.

Tragedy is still with us in this world. In past months, we have faced an enormous tragedy in the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and the damaging of the Pentagon in Washington D.C. For those of us who can feel the pain of the victims and their families only from a distance, we can still develop sympathy to help remove our feelings of hopelessness or inappropriate anger and, as we search for ways to serve, allow the healing that our Savior promises to enter our lives. Even if we cannot pick the flowers from our gardens to send to those who suffer, we can learn to let feelings of love and support for our fellow beings dominate our lives as Jesus Christ taught when He said, “Love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

[photos] Photography by George Edward Anderson, 1860–1928

[photos] The Levi Jones family (above) gather around the coffin of their lost loved one. Other families were harder hit, with one family losing nine family members. The cemetery in Scofield was the scene of multiple funerals and the gathering place for sorrowing families.

[illustration] Painting Christ the Consoler by Carl Heinrich Bloch, Superstock, Inc.