Baptisms for the Dead
“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead”- 1 Corinthians 15:29
Note: Baptisms for the dead, or as the LDS church refers to them, “proxy baptisms,” are a controversial practice in which members attend a temple ceremony and are baptized multiple times, on behalf of deceased people who are not members of the church. The objective is to offer a deceased soul the opportunity to convert to the LDS faith, and the practice was indoctrinated into the church by Joseph Smith in 1840.
Not surprisingly, the practice has drawn criticism from the secular world as well as from other religions, particularly the Jewish community. The tongue-in-cheek website, Famous Dead Mormons, catalogs the baptisms of public figures that are deemed inappropriate or offensive.
Below is a stitched-together conversation between four siblings who have participated in these baptisms—three who have left the LDS church and one who has stayed, providing a fragmented insider’s perspective on the practice.
Eldest Daughter: It started out as a question. I did my research, digging through online church records to find the dates for when I had done those baptisms. It bothered me that I had nothing in writing. I searched through all of my journals for something I had written about it at the time, but there was nothing. All I remembered was the name of all the women I had been baptized for. Do you remember any of the names you were baptized for?
Second Daughter: Nope. None. All I remember is that it would be the same name, so they would say the name over and over. But I remember the rest quite clearly… The water was warm and chlorinated. It smelled like it. Being in a locker room and having to put on those white jumpsuits. Having to shower beforehand to be “pure.” Then showering after.
Eldest Daughter: Oh my God. I don’t remember the showering part. Maybe I blocked it out. Knowing my frame of mind at the time, I probably thought it was very strange to be naked in the temple. I’d want to keep my clothes on…
It’s so strange to think about finding yourself completely naked in a temple. I had no idea what I was in for. It sounds worse when I say it like that, maybe shocking, when it’s actually banal and not as dangerous as it suggests. But it isn’t a lie. It’s just something I had forgotten.
Youngest Daughter: I remember the screen with the names that were read off one by one. There was the giant white pool held up by giant white oxen. And then there were those jumpsuits.
Second Daughter: You’re walking into the water and your pants billow out like balloons.
Son: They were super awkward, and I think the one I had was way too big. Actually, now I kind of remember the jumpsuit filling up with air pockets and ballooning at the top, making it look like one of those fake sumo suits. I was a very self-conscious teen, so I think the suit looking weird made me feel nervous, like people were judging me. But of course nobody really cared.
Youngest Daughter: Talk about awkward. I’m sure I had a crush on somebody at that time, and if I did, the jumpsuits were exactly the thing to make you feel self-conscious. One of the adults had helped me figure out the jumpsuit, I have no idea who. I don’t remember. But the whole changing experience felt so dreadful. I’m glad I’m not a kid anymore for that reason alone.
Son: The youngest a person can go to the temple to do baptisms for the dead is twelve.
Eldest Daughter: For the longest time I assumed that I was thirteen or fourteen years old, but then I found my dates. I was twelve. I still have a hard time believing that. I was really young, and there seems to be a world of difference between twelve and fourteen. I probably had no idea what I was doing.
Second Daughter: Twelve sounds about right. I don’t remember. I think I was older.
Son: I think the first time I went was a little after twelve. Probably thirteen or fourteen. Actually, I’m not sure exactly how old I was. My first time is a bit hazy.
Youngest Daughter: My whole memory of it is actually very blurry. I only remember something like a few still photos in my head of the whole event.
Eldest Daughter: I remember walking down, down, down into the font. You’re walking into something, submerging yourself.
Second Daughter: Then the Priest, or Elder, takes you by the wrist and starts to pray and say all the names, and dunks you several times. The dunking was actually really nice, like “Hey, I’m in this really weird spa and I’m going to enjoy this a moment.” I was relaxed, but still, being that close to a man who just dunks you in water is unnatural.
Eldest Daughter: Your natural impulse is to fight back.
Second Daughter: Kind of. One part of my brain was saying, “This is an interesting experience, being dunked. Kind of fun.” The other part of my brain was like, “This man could kill me right now.”
Youngest Daughter: I remember being held at the wrist and plugging my nose. I think I got some water up my nose at one point, but I was so determined to be unproblematic I kept my mouth shut. Altogether I felt warm and safe and kind of magical in one sense. The other side of me was terrified and shy.
Son: I remember it being a very peaceful and quiet place, but that’s the most of it. I have actually done baptisms for the dead many times since then, and I remember those a lot better.
Second Daughter: I remember cracking a lot of jokes with other girls. I thought little of it actually. It all just seemed normal, something with a strange name that needed to be done, like birthdays and other ceremonies. It wasn’t until after I left the church, and actually the state of Utah itself, that I realized it was not a normal concept at all.
Son: I think I was kind of an “oblivious child,” kind ignorant toward—well, all of life. Except video games. My initial impression was that it was kind of a thing where I had to go because it was a planned activity. I guess I had an “I’m-being-dragged-into-this” mentality. A lot of things for the gospel and the church didn’t really click with me until much later in life.
Youngest Daughter: I imagine I was a very impressionable kid, because I didn’t question much of what the church taught me up until my later teens. I’m like [Son] in that sense—I didn’t think much of the actual activity, but rather that it was another thing we had to do at church.
Son: After doing the baptisms I remember getting dressed and waiting in the waiting area, watching the others get baptized. I may have been hoping we would get ice cream afterwards.
But I do remember it being a very peaceful place and experience. I remember how white everything was. Everywhere. Even the bathrooms just seemed “pure.” Although it didn’t mean very much to me then, it means a lot more to me now.
Youngest Daughter: I remember my head kind of bursting with curiosity. It’s stuff you don’t see every day, and although you’ve talked about it a thousand times, all of a sudden you’re walking in and it’s there and it’s very unreal. But, honestly, it was strikingly beautiful. There was a glow to everything, like candlelight. Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but everything seemed yellow-gold and illuminated.
Eldest Daughter: I had no impression of baptisms for the dead as a kid. It’s incredible what you can absorb or accept without question, but in a way it makes sense. A human being is starting out at life and has no reference level. So you accept it.
Second Daughter: I don’t remember who taught me [about the baptisms], just it being mentioned to me as if it were a part of daily life. I think I mentioned baptisms for the dead to someone who was Catholic and got a very alarmed stare. It sounded like a cult ritual to them.
Son: In reality baptism—or any ordinance—is kind of a weird thing. If you want to join a club or something of that sort, and they said, “Okay, but first you need to be dunked underwater while we utter a few ritualistic words,” one might think they are going through some kind of initiation or hazing to join a fraternity. But baptism symbolizes the promise we are making with God. We are abandoning an old life and starting a new one, burying the old one underwater and then rising again cleansed from past mistakes.
Eldest Daughter: It’s framed as, “This is a nice thing to do.” You’re helping souls who are in the next life, giving them an opportunity to be saved. It was also explicitly stated that it would be a choice to those souls, that they could say “Yes” or “No.” Then again, the idea of a “No” seemed impossible, so there was also a lack of choice. Like, “Of course they’ll say yes.”
Second Daughter: I personally think the baptisms for the dead are more of an undercover attempt to keep far-reaching records on people–for non-religion-based uses.
Son: I know there are a lot of rumors that spread around, like we actually baptize dead people, or we are just doing it to boost membership numbers. But the real reason for doing it is to give those who didn’t have the chance to accept the gospel and be baptized the chance to do it in the next one. It is only an increased verification to me that God loves everyone, and in turn He made the plan of salvation to include everyone. The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints is the only faith that actually applies that knowledge.
Youngest Daughter: I’m not sure how to justify it being a necessary practice. I think in some cases it’s insanely bizarre, like celebrities, or people in history that have been baptized—Adolf Hitler, Gandhi, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, Joan of Arc—which I feel screams complete craziness. But hey, no one’s getting hurt, I don’t think.
Eldest Daughter: I can explain it better than whatever rumors someone has heard, but I don’t defend it. What does fascinate people is the idea of the large marble tub on the back of six oxen. It not only sounds slightly cultish, but luxurious. They’re like, “It’s like you were in a glorified bathroom right out of Scarface or something.”
Second Daughter: Each time I bring up I did that stuff—“I was baptized in a pool held up by 6 Golden Oxen for dead people!”—it really livens the conversation. One of my favorite ice-breakers.
Youngest Daughter: When I have talked to people about it I’ve simply told them the ritual of what takes place and answer questions, but only to the extent of my knowledge. I can’t say that I am the best representative for what this ritual is since I have never been a truly active Mormon.
Every religion has its quirks. I hear traditions and rituals of other beliefs and can’t follow them either. I always speak very kindly of the Mormon religion as a whole though. It may not be my path in life, but I have met and know many Mormons that are outstanding people.
Second Daughter: When you really think about it, it’s no stranger than some of the most basic religious— especially Christian—rituals that every denominational white person practices in mainstream society. They just take different weirdness for granted: “eating the flesh of Christ” or circumcising baby penises.
But what’s funny about baptisms for the dead as a concept is assuming that dead people in an afterlife wished they had been Mormon. It is an enormous assumption, thinking that this person would have wanted that done. I think, “I wonder if it is okay with their relatives that this person’s name is being used in a ritual.”
Son: If one of the main things taught in almost every Christian faith is that a man must be baptized, and Jesus teaches that “No man can enter into the kingdom of God unless he is baptized,” wouldn’t it seem a little unfair to everyone who died without hearing about what baptism is? Hypocritical, perhaps?
Eldest Daughter: The catch is hindsight. You look back and think, “Hey, chances are a twelve-year-old isn’t going to question doing something like this.” They either lean toward being obedient, because it’s easy, or not caring at all. It’s the same with being baptized into the church in the first place. That happens when you’re eight. You’re told it’s a choice, but that’s an age where you pretty much can’t make big decisions like that. I would be curious to hear about an eight-year-old who says, “No,” or “I don’t think I’m ready.” I bet it either ends poorly or the pressure is unbelievable.