Melissa's tree, a tiny blue spruce in front of Meadowbrook Elementary School, gives physical form to what Susan Mills believes: The end of this life is the beginning of the next.
Melissa's third-grade classmates planted the tree after the Mills' daughter died from leukemia two years ago. It's decorated on holidays - there were shamrocks at St. Patrick's Day and now painted eggs for Easter.Through her tree, Melissa lives on - just as her family believes her spirit lives in heaven, where they expect some day to be reunited with their eldest child.
"I know she's there and she's happy," Susan Mills said.
Belief in life after death and in resurrection is the bedrock of Christian religions like the LDS Church, of which Susan Mills is a member.
"St. Paul says that if Christ had not risen from the dead, then our faith is vain and his teaching is vain," said the Rev. Terence M. Moore, of St. Thomas More Church in Sandy. "Everything in Christian doctrine centers on the Resurrection of Christ."
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ - and through him all mankind - is "the absolute center point of hope and it comes to all life, not just people, but the atonement of Christ covers everything that dies," said Robert J. Matthews, a Brigham Young University professor emeritus of ancient scripture.
In a recent Deseret News/KSL TV poll, 89 percent of 607 people surveyed said they believe in life after death. A similar number, 84 percent, said they believe in the concept of resurrection. But the numbers vary significantly when broken down by religious denomination.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe unanimously in resurrection and life after death. Catholics and Protestants strongly affirm life after death but are more hesitant about resurrection. Even people who claim no religious affiliation believe there's more to come after this life. (See chart on A10).
Apparently, life after death is an easier idea for some people to grasp than resurrection. Belief in life after death is centuries old and part of, in one form or another, most religions - Christian and non-Christian alike.
"I think people rationally look for an eternal life where there is a resolution of all this," the Rev. Moore said. "But when you talk of resurrection, there's more difficulty with that concept. I think people believe it but they're not too sure how it happens."
Both Catholics and Mormons believe a person's spirit will be reunited with a glorified body.
Members of some faiths, such as Episcopalians, believe in resurrection but not necessarily of the physical body.
"We would not be willing to define the shape or style of that life other than to say it would be life with God," said the very Rev. Jack Potter of the Cathedral Church of St. Mark. "God will raise us in the fullness of our being that we may live with Christ in communion with the saints. But that doesn't necessarily mean with a body, and indeed probably does not."
There is little proof, of course, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead or that there's life after death. Skeptics call the Resurrection a parable and wishful thinking, with no basis in fact.
Which is where faith steps in for Christians, particularly when it comes to resurrection and life after death.
"It can only be looked forward to by faith and testimony, because we can't go out and demonstrate it," Matthews said. "It's not scientifically demonstrable in a laboratory."
Some people say they've had experiences that leave them no doubt about the life to come. Jackie Nokes, former director of the Utah State Fair and television personality, is one.
Near the end of his life, Nokes' father was comatose and wracked by high fevers, which hospital staff treated with ice blankets. "He had arthritis and hated to be cold," Nokes said.
Three days after his funeral, she sat in her home, overcome with grief and quietly crying.
"He walked in my door and said: `Honey, don't cry. It feels so good to get those cold blankets off,' " Nokes said.
The experience did not give birth to Nokes' belief in life after death - she always has been a believer. She said death is "really not the end. It's really just a pause."
Nokes is holding on to that idea as she grieves the death a month ago of her husband, John Klas.
"John didn't want to die at all. He loved life, thought life was great," Nokes said. But he was not afraid of "going onto another plane."
Shortly before his death, Klas told Nokes he wondered who might be there to meet him, given his "austere youth" and questions about his parents' love for him.
"I said: `Well, you know one thing. My mother will be there with open arms to greet you, John,' " Nokes said. "He said, `Yeah, she will, won't she?' "
Beliefs aside, many people say the prospect of resurrection and of a life to come provides little consolation when facing the death of a loved one or one's own mortality. They'd just as soon be with that person here and now.
Michael Zimmerman, chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, calls such notions a "weak reed to lean on," and an "abstract promise, a hope that is not comforting against the reality of death." They gave him no refuge in dealing with the death of his wife from cancer in January 1994.
Lynne Mariani Zimmerman was 42. She had a prominent career in public relations and served on several boards. Her most lasting legacy, though, and the one that profoundly amplifies her absence, is three young daughters.
"I think the reality of the dying process and the separation, the loss of the loved one, is much more forceful than any hoped-for notions of life after death," Zimmerman said.
Susan Mills, on the other hand, found her belief in the hereafter the sole comfort in her daughter's death.
"I'm really excited to see her again," Mills said. "I'm looking forward to the Second Coming (of Christ) because that's when she'll be resurrected."
For now, there is her daughter's memory, a little blue spruce tree and a slush machine.
The slush machine was a gift to Melissa from the Make-A-Wish Foundation shortly before she died.
"That was the only thing she felt like eating," Susan Mills said. Everyone - neighbors, grandparents, school friends - came to the Mills' home with a slushie for Melissa.
"She didn't get to use it," her mother said. "But she knew it was coming and was excited for it."
The slush machine, which sits on a counter in the Mills' kitchen, has not gone unused. Each May since her daughter's death, Susan Mills has invited Melissa's classmates, who are now in the fifth grade, to their home.
She lets the slush machine whir into action, flinging out ice chips that are mounded into dozens of slushies. And everyone has one, in honor of Melissa.
Deseret News/KSL poll
Do you believe in life after death?
LDS* CATHOLIC PROTESTANT NO RELIGION
PROBABLY 99% 89% 73% 57%
PROBABLY NOT 0% 7% 20% 33%
DON'T KNOW 0% 4% 7% 11%
Do you believe in the concept of resurrection?
LDS* CATHOLIC PROTESTANT NO RELIGION
PROBABLY 100% 78% 64% 37%
PROBABLY NOT 0% 15% 29% 56%
DON'T KNOW 0% 7% 7% 7%
Poll conducted March 28-29, 1995. Margin of error +/-4% on interviews of 607 adults statewide. Conducted by Dan Jones & Associates. Copyright 1995 Deseret News.