Death and Doctrine, II

Can you help me a bit more with this topic? . . . Since LDS funeral sermons were given exclusively by men before 1900, they make an interesting comparison with LDS women’s death poetry of the same time period. When he studied LDS funeral sermons, Davis Bitton researched what he called “the gospel of comfort.” While much is the same (ie, finding healing by looking forward in time, imagining the spirit world, and speaking of being “relieved from suffering”), there are some telling differences:

• Many (even most) female poets did not depict the spirit as going to a “spirit world” or “paradise” before being resurrected. Instead they spoke of a time period of quite literal “rest” or “sleep” that happens before the judgment bar of God. For example, Emily Hill Woodmansee, survivor of the Willie Handcart company, describes it as “blest oblivion.” Why would pioneer women (willfully?) overlook the doctrine of the spirit world in favor of “blest oblivion”?

• While both male sermon givers and female poets found comfort in the doctrine of eternal relationships, nineteenth-century LDS women found disproportionate comfort in female-and-female and mother-and-child relationships. Out of 67 Exponent death poems during 1872-1882, only eleven are clearly about the deaths of men. Five of those pay homage to high-ranking leaders and four are tributes to for relatives—two for grandfathers, one for a father, and one for a brother. Two poems may be about husbands, but both are so vague that they may be about someone else entirely. While we know this was the time period of “separate spheres” as well as the era of polygamy, I was stunned at the dearth of eternal husbands. Why would these women poets neglect to immortalize/memorialize their husbands? Or, conversely, why did they disproportionately write about children and friends?

• A few women seem so devastated by the loss of children that they claim the mother-child bond is the source of eternal “sealed” relationships (rather than priesthood ordinances). Lu Dalton argues that “mother-love is strong / and deep laid as the everlasting hills.” In another poem two years later, Dalton asserts that “an angel of God’s perfect day / Is mine, by the passion of motherhood won, / By love and fond memory bound.” Mrs. E. B. Browning concurs:

“ . . . I appeal
To all who bear babes—in the hour
When the veil of the body we feel
Rent round us—while torments reveal
The motherhood’s advent in power,
And the babe cries!—has each of us known
By apocalypse / . . . the child is our own,
Life of life, love of love, moan of moan,
Through all changes, all times, everywhere.”

Sorry to drag everyone along on my depressing tangent into death poetry, but I would love to hear speculation on why very faithful nineteenth-century LDS women would write poems that altered doctrine, such as the doctrine of the spirit world and the sealing power of the priesthood, and—often—overlook their eternal husbands. Any ideas?

41 comments for “Death and Doctrine, II

  1. I would imagine that the emphasis on children over spouse was likely a result of their true feelings. In the many women’s diaries I have read during this period, virtually all are deeply and emphatically attached to their children, well into their children’s adulthood. Zina DHS Young is a splendid example. On the one hand she is ultimately attached to her children, and on the other, while and in an interview with the New York World declared that women “must regard her husband with indifference, and wits no other feeling than that of reverence, for we regard love as a false sentiment…”

  2. Gulp. Reverence!?! I know approximately zero people (besides newborn babies) who deserve *reverence*. Male or female.

  3. I revere my parents, my wife, and many others. Probably you’re using ‘revere’ in a different sense then I am, but then on other hand the person you’re criticizing is probably using ‘revere’ in a different sense than you are too. We have to be careful when dealing with a word with such a broad range of meaning.

  4. Researcher, it was from a 1869 interview, which I found quoted in Compton’s Sacred Loneliness. I once contrasted this sentiment with the notions of romantic love used to defend eternal Marriage by President McKay. The exigencies of polygamy change many things.

  5. I’ll go with Stapley on this, and add my own thoughts. It seems that, for most women, practicing polygamy required a certain degree of detachment from their husbands that they certainly didn’t apply to their children. Many probably spent much more time with sister-spouses and dear friends. Detachment may have been part of a wider culture of marriage back then as well. Many women married solely for security, and the average age difference between husband and wife was greater than it is now. Further, both of these effects are accentuated in a polygamist society, and I expect *variance* in age difference was larger as well.

    As for disregarding doctrine: speculation about a woman’s thoughts and feelings at a time of woe is something I’ve learned to be wary of. :) Even so, if this is again about faith vs. mourning, I’ll only observe that I’ve experienced rough, raw emotion winning out over reasoned faith hundreds of times in less poigniant matters, and I’m sure that’s not unusual.

    Also, like last time, how much of this anomaly is part of the literary culture of the time? We build our code-books out of phrases we’ve already consumed, and communication seems to be largely a matter of finding a best match. If “blest oblivion” fits best for them in their circumstances, I’d sooner call it a mixture of honest emotion and approximation error than spritual weakness.

  6. “Why would pioneer women (willfully?) overlook the doctrine of the spirit world in favor of “blest oblivion”?”

    Because I bet a real serious nap sounded better to pioneer women than more work in the spirit world.

  7. When poetry and rhetoric are meant to viscerally communicate some emotion or feeling, vetting it for literal doctrinal correctness is counterproductive. I don’t see that any of these quoted excerpts were meant as theological tracts so I don’t see that there’s any real controversy to be made out of them.

  8. Based on the texts you have provided, I’m not sure I see enough evidence that these selections actually alter the doctrine of the sealing power. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems the the notion of the bonds and affection of motherhood ‘sealing up’ the memory of a child is also compatible with the notion of priesthood sealing. Then again, I often tend towards New Criticism (which also eschews the intentional fallacy, so technically I shouldn’t even be commenting).

    Either way, interesting texts and intriguing questions. I’m interested in others’ responses.

  9. and this might be the only time in history that I type, “I agree wholeheartedly with Ardis Parshall and Adam Greenwood.”

  10. And this might be the only time I’ll ever type that, in my opinion, Ardis Parshall and Ray might quite possibly be the most puckish, yet sesquipedalian, onymous Mormon commenters on this thread.

  11. Also, despite my #7, let me say that these are some interesting questions and there could be a lot of profit in thinking over the different kinds of answers to them.

  12. Why would pioneer women overlook the doctrine of the spirit world?

    It’s doctrine now, was it doctrine then? Are current Prophet and GA discussions doctrine? Is the First President’s position on California’s Proposition 8 doctrine? Some would probably argue yes but others are currently arguing no.

    I’ll defer to the church history scholars, but doesn’t doctrine evolve over time?

  13. Interesting post! I have a few observations/questions. First, how confident are we about the sampling? That is, how confident are we that poems published in the Exponent represent the poetry women were writing or, further, what women were thinking and feeling? Making numbers up: let’s assume the population of Utah was about 100k over the 1870s and that the death rate was about 1% per year (remember: made up numbers). The 67 poems thus represent (the assumed) 10,000 deaths; that is, there’s about 1 poem for every 100 deaths and about 1 poet for every, say, 500 adult women (assume 50% of the population is female and 50% are adults). In contrast to funeral sermons, which (I conjecture) would both address and draw from a broad swath of the population, only a small proportion of the population submitted poems for publication and those were filtered by a miniscule editorial group. The question survives: Why did this handful of women write the way they did? but I am wary of extending the answer to the rest of the Mormon population.

  14. Second, in the observation that the women wrote “disproportionately” about children and friends, what is the assumed “proportionate” number? More numbers out of the air: each author would have, on hypothetical average, 1 husband, 1 sister-wife, 2 sisters, 2 brothers, 6 children, 3 (g)mothers, and 3 (g)fathers, for a total of about 20 close relations. Thus, husbands would make up about 5% of the dying familial population and we would expect the sample of 67 poems to include about 3 poems about husbands—and that’s not even counting friends or church leaders or the fact that infant and child mortality rates were higher than adult mortality rates. Further, assuming, as I did above, that the Exponent’s voice was more likely to reflect the experience of elite (broadly defined) women, the authors would be more likely to be involved in polygamous relationships and more likely to have strong attachments to church leaders. I do think it’s strange that there are _no_ poems about husbands, but it’s not _that_ strange considering the size of the sample. Of course, if all my supposing is reliable, about a third of the poems should be about men (still ignoring female friends), which is not the case.

  15. Third, how does the original post’s report that many/most of the female poets focused on post-mortal rest or oblivion compare to the relative frequency with which male poets/sermonizers used the rest trope? The line, “We then are free from toil and sorrow, too,” was written by a man, after all. Is the assertion that women focused on rest more so than did men or that Mormons of the late 19th century focused more on rest than later generations did (especially those generations coming after what became D&C 138 was announced)?

  16. Okay, besides the fact that I had to use for #11, I’m really interested in the comments and questions. I, too, assume that women focused these poems about other women and children because they felt those were their primary relationships. Didn’t even Brigham preach that polygamous women should focus on their children and not spend their efforts trying to feel loved by their husbands (not in those words)? I agree that probably more children died, statistically speaking, but since I studied every “death” poem for a ten year period, I found it stunning that there were no concrete, obvious husband poems. I guess another possible reason would be that the women poets felt like their genre dictated they write about women and children.

    Has anyone ever studied the Exponent authors as compared to LDS women? I don’t know for sure, but I would bet that they are more urban, more likely to be polygamous/church elite, more likely to be educated and etc. I understand that I should not use these death poems to speculate about all LDS women coping with death during the time period. However, the genre was so widespread–through both LDS and American culture. It seems to me that the Mormon women were both copying women in the rest of the country and also adding to LDS death “ritual.” Perhaps that’s a vast overstatement, considering that holistically speaking very few people were written up in a published poem. But it seemed important to these women to memorialize each other and their children in a concrete way. I wonder why they felt the need to do that.

    Good question in #14 and #18. I saw lots of “rest” from “sorrow/suffering” in both funeral sermon and poetry. I guess I was just surprised when some women stepped away from figurative language and seemed to mean rest/unconscious state quite literally. I honestly have no idea whether the doctrine of the spirit world was not yet clear “doctrine,” whether pioneer women were simply exhausted and wanted a bit of eternal rest before resurrection morning, or something else entirely. Who knows?

  17. Certainly the spirit world and rest are not incompatible.

    “The spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow” (Alma 40:12).

    Kyle 19:

    How can you be sure it wasn’t figurative?

  18. One thing that I might consider is who was deciding which poems to publish. Certainly not every poem submitted made it to press, and what did make it was likely not a representative sample. What we could be seeing might not be a widespread trend among mormon women in general, but rather an unconscious preference among the editors of the magazine.

  19. I’d imagine the notion of people rushing around in the afterlife wasn’t widespread until after Joseph F. Smith’s 1918 vision (and then I’m not sure when it became cannonical). So the idea of death being a rest until the resurrection may have been common. So the question would be when did this notion change? And if your life has been spent growing your own food, making your own clothes, cooking over a fire, nursing the sick at all hours, and living in a house with no proper floor, rest has got to be the best idea ever.

    I’d also second those who commented that women’s relationships with their husbands were probably more distant than they are today–one of my great grandmothers chose to stay behind when her husband took his 2 other wives to Mexico; another’s husband died quite young and she raised her kids alone; a third was married 4 times (divorced twice, widowed twice). Missionary/other church service, polygamy, and the kinds of work men/women were responsible for would have created emotional distance. I wonder, also, if men and women’s spiritual experiences were somewhat gender-segregated also–men preaching/talking in priesthood-oriented meetings vs. women’s experiences caring for children/sick, etc. We know that women in the early church often held impromptu prayer meetings for others with needs. I’d imagine that this fostered a kind of intimacy with other women and their children. Makes me think of Mary Whitmer–her vision of the plates came as a result of feeling tired and overburdened with work and responsibility, not discussion and formal prayer.

  20. About the emotional poems v. literal doctrine: I don’t know if I agree with all of you who are agreeing with each other. It seems to me that you are making an artificial segregation between emotion and doctrine, which, ironically, mirrors what the women of the time period would have said: ie, that men speak doctrine and women write flowery emotional poetry. Still, I can understand that you are cautioning me against trying to find doctrine in a poem.

    Let me explain that I’m not trying to see a controversy just to stir things up. I am not very interested in a literal doctrinal controversy, either, because I really cannot see that any of these faithful women would be publishing false doctrine on purpose in a church-sponsored magazine.

    But I do believe that these poems give us great insight into whether official doctrine is the same as “lived doctrine” or doctrine at the ground level. We get a glimpse of culture and society as seen through the lens of someone’s doctrinal interpretation, be that a tract, an essay or a poem. Susannah Morrill argues in White Roses on the Floor of Heaven that we should consider the influence of “popular theology”–theology that is “created” by the general, lay members of a church (sometimes unconsciously created). It is not authoritative for a church, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important or effective in influencing how people live and understand their religion.

    So. I do think it’s important to look at how these poets understand doctrine and how they write about it. It is important for me to understand that some women interpret the time before resurrection as a time of “blest oblivion.” I don’t know why they do it, but it is saying something, especially when I find it in more than one poem by more than one or two women.

    And I also think it’s important to study the sealing issue–in Lu Dalton’s poems, for example. When Lu Dalton consistently claims her children are hers, it tipped me off that I should do more research . . . and learn that she was very unhappy in her marriage as the fourth wife of the troubled Charles Dalton. After his death, priesthood leaders told Lu she should get a cancellation of sealing and marry a more faithful man. She refused because she was concerned about what that would mean for her relationship with her kids. In a letter she explained, “My feelings as a mother are far keener and deeper than my feelings as a wife. I am the mother of six children; four are still living and two are gone before; and I would not forfeit my claim to them as their mother, for the sake of the best man in God’s kingdom.” She did eventually follow the advice and have her sealing to her husband cancelled, and she probably felt anxious about whether that meant her sealing to her children was still intact. So, yes, even though it seems small, I see something important in Lu Dalton’s claim that “an angel of God’s perfect day / Is mine, by the passion of motherhood won.” She was personally worried about her “angels” and wanted to claim them by virtue of motherhood, something that didn’t depend on a husband’s good behavior.

    Perhaps I am trying to say that the way these poems interpret or talk about doctrine tells me about the women, their lives and their circumstances. It gives me insight into how LDS women used their religion and doctrine (albeit paired with an Americanized/feminized literary form) to cope with death. Does that make sense?

  21. One thing that I thought about is that our emotions tend to be uncontrollable by the “reasoned” world view. And this poetry can be seen as a way of letting out those emotions.

    And, besides, as Dennis referred to Alma 40:12 in #20, the scriptures give us a reason to see a rewarding rest after the toils of mortality – especially when theirs was a much tougher world to live in, at least physically.

    And still, I don’t see the notions of rest incompatible with D&C 138. All you have to remember that what was hardest for LDS people in the 19th century (hard manual labor, contagious diseases, outright persecution) is absent in the spirit world. It really is a state of rest.

    As for the notions of oblivion/unconsciousness, I can only speculate that it was something they wished could happen. How sweet it can be to lie down after a long hard day and sleep without dreaming! I can see that being a plausible source of those sentiments.

    The missing husbands? Probably a reflection of how much our attitude towards relationships has changed. Even my mom & dad (not LDS) never went out on a date. I never saw my parents hugging each other or telling each other that they loved the other. My parents were born in 1920’s.

  22. Despite Marianne’s anecdotal evidence to the contrary (#22), isn’t it possible that the demographics of death in the 19th century provide an explanation for the preponderance of poems about the loss of children? High infant mortality rates meant many mothers mourning the loss of their children.

  23. All the way back to comments 2-4: if you understand “revere” to mean simply “respect, love, honor” I can see the usage.

    However, it seems like the term “reverence” often comes with a suggestion of a power differential between the person and the object of their reverence. Hence, you have reverence toward God, or toward nature. In my mind, using the term reverence toward a spouse evokes images of a Victorian, dictatorial yet virtuous husband. One who has to be firm yet kind to his child-wife. I won’t go into the problems I see with this type of relationship, but looking at the use of the word “reverence” as applied toward a spouse could suggest why they were not often treated as the subjects of verse.

  24. Here’s a separate comment for my next thought.

    One of my ancestors lost six of her nine children, all of them between the ages of 1 and 15. The number one cause was diphtheria, a disease we don’t see any more due to the wonders of immunization. I will not share much from her experience because it is so strikingly personal and deeply tragic, but here is a poem she copied into her diary after the fourth death. At this point she had a single child still living but would lose him four years later.

    “Oh the stillness of the room
    Where the children used to play,
    Oh the silence of the house,
    Since the children went away.

    This is the mother life—
    To bear, to love, to lose;
    Till all the sweet sad tale is told
    In a pair of little shoes,

    In a single broken toy
    In a flower pressed, to keep,
    All fragrant still the faded life
    Of them who fell asleep.”

  25. They spoke of a time period of quite literal “rest” or “sleep” that happens before the judgment bar of God.

    It isn’t clear to me how this is extra-doctrinal. We will be judged before resurrection, until then we have no body with which to perform work. Isn’t this rest or even poetically sleep?

    We do not know much about the spirit world which is why in 1843 JS said “”Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” Most of what we do know involves men and the priesthood; we know little of the role of women except that they will be involved in the role of mothers. Mothers without bodies mothering children without bodies, this sounds like a rest to me compared to doing it with bodies.

  26. Good comment Howard (#28). Maybe I’m not as clear about doctrine as I think I am, especially concerning what women do prior to the resurrection. How does everyone else understand the time between death and the resurrection–especially for women?

  27. Kylie, you are right that Brigham was utilitarian in his views. In one sermon after talking about how women should loved to babies, he preached:

    Do you look forward to that? or are you tormenting yourselves by thinking that your husbands do not love you? I would not care whether they loved a particle or not; but I would cry out, like one of old, in the joy of my heart, “I have got a man from the Lord!” “Hallelujah! I am a mother – I have borne an image of God!” (JD, 9:37)

    As to the concept of the spirit world. I think that even though it was long before section138, the saints had a robust conception of the work that was to be done there. We have Brigham’s famous vision of Joseph Smith on the trek west and the persistent ideas of a busy spirit world dating back to the early Utah period. For example, Parley Pratt preached at the April 1853 General Conference:

    Did Joseph, in the spirit world, think of any thing else, yesterday, but the doings of his brethren on the earth? He might have been necessarily employed, and so busy as to be obliged to think of other things. But if I were to judge from the acquaintance I had with him in his life, and from my knowledge of the spirit of Priesthood, I would suppose him to be so hurried as to have little or no time to cast an eye or a thought after his friends on the earth. He was always busy while here, and so are we. The spirit of our holy ordination and anointing will not let us rest. The spirit of his calling will never suffer him to rest, while satan, sin, death, or darkness, possesses a foot of ground on this earth. While the spirit world contains the spirit of one of his friends or the grave holds captive one of their bodies, he will never rest, or slacken his labours. (JD, 1:15)

  28. Speaking of reverence, I am reminded of Bathsheba Smith’s reaction to the death of her husband, George. One version of the lament reads: “I could not think of myself. I loved him more. He was now through. All was quiet and his head lay against my bosom, good angels had come to receive his precious spirit, perhaps our sons, prophets, patriarchs, saints beloved were there, but he was gone. My light, my sun, my life, my joy, my Lord. Yea almost my God. But I must not mourn but prepare myself to meet him but my heart sinks with in my bosom nearly.”

  29. Except for near death and out-of-body experiences, sleep is as close as most mortals come to being free of their bodies. Is it possible that “sleep” was being used as a metaphor?

  30. Kylie 23:

    Susannah Morrill argues in White Roses on the Floor of Heaven that we should consider the influence of “popular theology”–theology that is “created” by the general, lay members of a church (sometimes unconsciously created). It is not authoritative for a church, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important or effective in influencing how people live and understand their religion.

    I don’t mean to side track too much, but I just wanted to mention to you that I am VERY interested in this topic. I’ve written about this topic here, here, and here.

  31. Thanks, J. Stapley, for the quote from BY and from the JD. It matches with my vague remembrances; it seems that Brigham said similar things more than once, pushing polygamous women in particular to have their primary relationship with their children rather than worrying about love from husbands. Which really makes sense to my imagination–I can’t imagine how one could have a truly fulfilling male/female marriage relationship in polygamy. Though Justin’s quote from Bathsheba makes it certainly sound possible.

    Howard, sleep is definitely used metaphorically many times by both men and women. I have quotes from church presidents using “sleep” and “rest.” It just seemed to me that some pioneer women took it a step further than metaphor. Perhaps, as many have suggested, after surviving something like the Willie Handcart company and then living with the after-effects all your life, maybe you want the sleep literally rather than figuratively. Another example: one woman poet who spoke of sleep quite literally had a tragic life; the little biographical information I could find indicated that her husband and five (if I’m remembering correctly) children died in St. Louis. She worked the rest of her life to support her remaining two children, eeking out a meagre existence. Yes, I can definitely see why she would like to sleep for awhile.

  32. I think the Bathseba-George relationship was a particular case because she was a grand matriarch (if you will). The first wife and in love before polygamy was ever taught.

  33. Sure, makes sense to me. My triple great grandmother, mother of 9 survived the Willie Handcart Company, her husband and two sons did not. Immediately upon arrival in Salt Lake she and her remaining 6 children were sent to Nephi where she became a midwife attending to about 2,000 births. I can understand why she would want to rest and sleep.

  34. The term “blessed oblivion” until the resurrection speaks of the death of a loved one from the perspective of the person grieving. The loved one is lost, out of site, not in the material, visible world, in oblivion as far as anyone here on earth can see. But if it were simple negation of all existence, in more of a Buddhist sense, there would be no obvious blessedness about it. The loved one has passed out of this all too real material world, of hunger and striving and disease and pain, and cannot be found anywhere within our physical universe, not on any planet.

    We understand now that the canceling of sealing between husband and wife does not end the relationship between mother and children. When a woman is sealed to a new husband, and her previous sealing has been canceled, the children are understood to belong to the mother in the new marriage. Children “born in the covenant” do not need a priesthood ordinance to be sealed to their mother and father eternally. The sealing comes about automatically at birth. Both the prior ordinance AND the birth are part of the process, but the birth is just as powerful a link in the chain as the original sealing, and the separate sealing of children born before the temple marriage and sealed to parents in the temple. So there is something of a sacramental and spiritually binding nature in the act of giving birth to the mortal tabernacle of a spirit child of God.

    So these poetic expressions are at least aspects of truth. I think they certainly qualify to be included among the “virtuous, lovely or praiseworthy” things that the Saints are taught to embrace.

  35. RTS, I think what you say resonates with Mormonism, to be sure; but I think it is best to be careful not to project modern ideas about the sealing liturgy onto nineteenth century Mormonism.

  36. When a woman is sealed to a new husband, and her previous sealing has been canceled, the children are understood to belong to the mother in the new marriage

    I hear this a lot, usually wielded as a club by divorcing women against the families of ex-husbands. I do not know where it originates, and have strong doubts about its doctrinal validity, at least as a blanket “law” regardless of individual circumstances, given our current view of sealing ordinances as entitling one to future blessings without necessarily binding anyone to specific others. While it would be a threadjack here, I wish one of you history-of-doctrine-and-liturgy types would post somewhere about where this notion came from.

  37. Ardis, you are correct that that specific formulation is something of a folk-belief. Current official policy is that children who are born in the covenant remain so even if one or more parents apostatize. Back in the day, if one or more parents remained faithful and remarried and were sealed in the temple, they would then be adopted into the new family. After the repeal of the “Law of Adoption,” it took a couple of decades for a new laissez-faire view to be normalized. I.e., that we need not worry about the details of our post mortal sealing arrangements if we make a good faith effort (this applies to many areas of relationships, including fetal mortality, single people and non-traditional marriages). I don’t believe I have ever come across anything to suggest that children belong to their mothers, though, so that is likely an unfounded modernism.

  38. Anyone who has ever suffered or mourned so deeply that they felt as if their very souls have been bruised knows what the term \”blessed oblivion\” means. The desire to escape very real, mental and emotional mortal agony for even a moment-to forget completely-what a blessing!

    I think it is just as erroneous to expect all early LDS saints to firmly and identically grasp any doctrine as it would be to expect all current LDS saints to. Any LDS blog will demonstrate that even in the context of a small group, not all of them believe/think/accept everything in the same manner. Not knowing how that particular sister used the terms, what she was feeling, to what extent she understood the gospel, or to what degree she believed what she understood is virtually impossible. For example, if \”the Researcher\” used the word \”revere\” in a poem, only those who know him/her intimately, or had read this conversation would know that how he/she defines that word is different than how Zina Young defined it. I don\’t think that a total stranger could read one (or even two or three) of my \”poems\” and get a clear picture of what I believe to be true about a particular doctrine or idea any more than they could read an autobiography by the Mona Lisa and determine with accuracy what made her \”smile\” that day.

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