I’ve just returned from an excellent funeral. Richard H. Cracroft, the dean (of the College of Humanities at BYU) who hired me and who subsequently went on to preside over the mission in my beloved Germanic Switzerland (where I myself served), died on 20 September 2012 after years of physical challenges and disabilities.
One of the speakers at Richard’s funeral appropriately quoted Brigham Young:
“What a dark valley and a shadow it is that we call death! To pass from this state of existence as far as the mortal body is concerned, into a state of inanition [emptiness], how strange it is! How dark this valley is! How mysterious is this road, and we have got to travel it alone. I would like to say to you, my friends and brethren, if we could see things as they are, and as we shall see and understand them, this dark shadow and valley is so trifling that we shall turn round and look about upon it and think, when we have crossed it, why this is the greatest advantage of my whole existence, for I have passed from a state of sorrow, grief, mourning, woe, misery, pain, anguish and disappointment into a state of existence, where I can enjoy life to the fullest extent as far as that can be done without a body. My spirit is set free, I thirst no more, I want to sleep no more, I hunger no more, I tire no more, I run, I walk, I labor, I go, I come, I do this, I do that, whatever is required of me, nothing like pain or weariness, I am full of life, full of vigor, and I enjoy the presence of my heavenly Father, by the power of his Spirit.”
Another speaker, I believe — Richard’s life-long friend J. Samuel Park — cited the epitaph on the grave marker of Joseph Smith III: “The battle is won, the pain is gone, the view is wonderful.”
I was living in Cairo, Egypt, when my good friend Kent Brown wrote to me, telling me that Robert Matthews (the dean of Religious Education at BYU) and Richard Cracroft (the dean of Humanities) would be coming through Egypt as part of a tour to consider BYU semester abroad programs in the Middle East. (This was before the construction of BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, and was, perhaps, part of the process that led to it.) Whatever I was doing, Kent suggested, I should seriously consider dropping it and taking these two around. It would, he advised, be well worth my time.
So I did. I had never met either of them before, but I hired a taxi driver whom I knew, and I took them to Saqqara and Giza and into the oldest portions of Cairo. We had a great time together. (I attended Bob Matthews’s funeral almost precisely three years ago — only, it seems, a month or two after we had lunch together. His passing was a shock to me.) They even had dinner with us at the small apartment in which my wife and I lived, where we cooked with the help of a butane tank and kept a bucket in the bathroom with which to flush the toilet.
When, finally, I was in a position to accept an offer to join the Arabic faculty at BYU, I was invited to Utah for interviews. Over lunch in the Sky Room of the Wilkinson Center, Richard Cracroft told his associate dean, Garold Davis, that “The best thing about Peterson is that we can get him cheap; I’ve seen how he lived in Cairo.”
I’m more grateful than I can express that I never had to go through the ordeal of the academic meat market to get my job at BYU.
Richard Cracroft led a really good life. He was widely and well loved, and the services for him reflected that. (How many of us will be mourned with such sincere affection by so large a congregation?) They also reflected his marvelous sense of humor; he was one of the most naturally funny people I have ever known.
Paul Pollei, another life-long friend, performed a set of variations on the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” He was followed by Brother Park, who had known Dick Cracroft since they were both about ten years old. They got into abundant mischief together (something that, knowing Richard, I can easily believe), went to the University of Utah together, decided together to serve missions, double-dated their future wives together, were married within about a week of each other in the Salt Lake Temple (the Cracrofts cut their honeymoon short in order to be present for the Parks’ wedding), were called as mission presidents at the same time and were announced as such next to one another in the Church News. (Brother Park wondered aloud how many members of the old ward in which they had grown up promptly apostasized when they saw that duo being announced, side by side, as mission presidents.)
Brenda Briggs, who grew up in the stake where Richard presided and then served under his direction in Switzerland as a missionary, gave a wonderful and loving talk, followed by a very pleasant vocal-and-guitar rendition of “I am a Child of God” by Tod Cracroft, a nephew, and then by talks from Stephen Tanner, a BYU colleague and friend; Andreas Lippert, a former assistant to Präsident Cracroft in the Switzerland Zürich Mission; and his bishop, Joel Warner.
I loved the music of the services. The prelude music included “If You Could Hie to Kolob” (to the Ralph Vaughn Williams tune “Kingsfold”) and, at the end, the congregation sang “Be Still My Soul” (to the familiar tune by Jean Sibelius). Both are favorites of mine, and I would be perfectly content to have them included in my own funeral (along with, for that matter, “Nearer My God to Thee”).
Stephen Tanner told of a Humanities College meeting conducted by Richard to which Stan Taylor, of Political Science (and therefore from a separate college), had come to make an announcement. When he stood up to speak, Dr. Taylor commented that he had never seen so much laughter at a college meeting before. To which Richard immediately replied that, as a Utah Democrat, Professor Taylor had probably never seen so large a meeting, either.
A special treat was to have Elder Jeffrey Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as the first speaker. (He apologized profusely for having to speak first and leave early. Especially during the period just prior to the October General Conference of the Church, he explained, it was either that or miss the service altogether.)
Richard’s service as dean came during Elder Holland’s tenure as president of BYU, and Elder Holland praised him for his remarkable efforts not only as an administrator but as a teacher. They had even team-taught together.
Elder Holland, who himself has a background (including a Yale Ph.D.) in English and American literature rather like Richard’s own, cited Mark Twain’s claim that humor stems from sorrow, not from happiness, and that, accordingly, there is no laughter in heaven. “If that was ever true,” Elder Holland said, “it’s true no longer. In fact, as of last Thursday, it’s definitively false. Dick Cracroft 1, Sam Clemens 0.”
He also cited a comment from Thomas Carlyle, that “No man who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether irreclaimably bad.” In that light, he suggested that we reflect upon all of the redemptive work that Dick Cracroft had done, causing people to laugh.
Finally, Elder Holland referred to Dylan Thomas’s famous counsel, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
“‘The dying of the light?’” Elder Holland responded. Richard Cracroft, he told the congregation, has now entered into “a world of magnificent illumination.”
And, finally, Elder Holland bore testimony of the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something that, he testified, quoting Ezra Pound, is “news that stays news.”
Another hymn that figured in today’s services, and that I would be happy to have included in my own, was “Each Life that Touches Ours for Good,” with Karen Lynn Davidson’s moving lyrics:
Each life that touches ours for good
Reflects thine own great mercy, Lord;
Thou sendest blessings from above
Thru words and deeds of those who love.
What greater gift dost thou bestow,
What greater goodness can we know
Than Christlike friends, whose gentle ways
Strengthen our faith, enrich our days.
When such a friend from us departs,
We hold forever in our hearts
A sweet and hallowed memory,
Bringing us nearer, Lord, to thee.
For worthy friends whose lives proclaim
Devotion to the Savior’s name,
Who bless our days with peace and love,
We praise thy goodness, Lord, above.