Other People’s Dead

The most recent controversy over Mormonism’s practice of posthumous baptism reached its peak in February when it came out that Eli Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, had ended up on a to-be-baptized list.  Wiesel called on Mitt Romney to condemn the practice of proxy baptisms for Jews, particularly Holocaust victims, echoing complaints made by Jewish leaders in the early nineties.  The Church has apologized profusely and maintains that they have made every effort to keep Holocaust victims off of the rolls; the latest cases, officials said, are the consequence of overzealous members ignoring the rules.

The LDS Church performs posthumous baptisms to give the dead the opportunity to accept the faith and be united with their families in eternity, even if they failed to hear or listen to the Mormon message during life.  Intense public controversy over the practice goes back more than twenty years and has come from Christian as well as Jewish groups – both the Anglican and Catholic churches have taken steps to restrict LDS access to their historical records, objecting, as a 2008 Vatican letter put it, to the “erroneous practices” of Mormons and seeking to protect “the confidentiality of the faithful.”

Institutional churches and certainly Jewish leaders such as Wiesel have an undisputed prerogative to police the boundary that is crossed by proxy baptism, but our immediate acceptance of this fact has occluded the question of what boundary, exactly, that is.  By definition, no one who objects to the practice believes that it has an actual effect on the dead – the Catholic Church and many others do not recognize Mormon baptism as valid for the living, let alone for the dead.  Moreover, while the central word in many critics’ objections has been identity – that the Jewish identity, for example, of the dead is impugned when they are posthumously baptized by Mormons – this implies that the practice has a rhetorical power for non-believers that actually seems to be as lacking as the practical.  Do non-Mormons really think differently about the baptized dead or believe that a dead person’s rights of self-determination have been meaningfully impugned by being listed on a Church form?  If one believes that what happens is that a Mormon gets wet and the eternal adoration of God continues unaffected, or the Universe remains silent, or Grandma goes right on playing checkers with Jesus, why condemn a practice that even critics can recognize as well-intentioned?  The answer, I think, is that the objections – like the practice itself – are not really about the dead, but about us, the living.

There are two related factors that motivate both proxy baptism as a practice and the opposition to it, and both of them have everything to do with the living.  One is our natural desire to feel that we are doing something for the dead.  Like gravesite flowers and memorial funds, asserting the interests of the dead is an act of memory and honor, the “she would have wanted it this way” that lets us continue to feel a connection to those who are gone.  This desire for connection animates proxy baptism and the objections to it.  A couple of weeks after Wiesel’s statement, reports circulated that Daniel Pearl, the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter executed in Pakistan in 2001, had been posthumously baptized, and the heartfelt statements of opprobrium from his parents and his widow are moving enactments of this ongoing connection.  “He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed,” Pearl’s parents wrote.  “For the record, let it be clear: Danny did not choose to be baptized, nor did his family consent to this un-called-for ritual.”

Such statements are also, though, assertions of authority over Pearl’s memory from the people who knew him best, simple observations that as a member of their family he belongs to them, not to the Mormons in Idaho who baptized him vicariously.  This rhetoric of possession is everywhere in the controversy over posthumous baptism.  As an Anglican official stated in 1991: “The concern is that the baptism of the dead is an interference with the souls of dead Anglicans which the Mormons want to acquire” (“Church fears Mormon bid to take over dead souls,” The Observer, March 24, 1991; emphasis mine).

The question of staking a claim to the dead is particularly fraught when it comes to those who become fixtures of public memory.  Soldiers, victims of disease and violent crime – these dead become our symbols, ways for us to talk about the value of a cause, the consequences of a problem.  What they as symbols are likely to mean or are capable of meaning is affected by the way they lived or the way they died, but those meanings are ultimately decided by the living, because all graves are equally silent.  Holocaust victims, obviously, fall into this category, and the borders of their memory and their meaning as symbols are forcefully policed, with good reason.  In addition to echoing the forced conversions of earlier eras, for Jews proxy baptism appears to be an attempt to make a claim on these most sacred dead.  Applauding Mormons’ ready commitment to the 1995 agreement to stop baptizing Holocaust victims, a Canadian rabbi summarized the problem, making these connections and the stakes of possession explicit.  “In the classic format of a medieval scenario,” he wrote, “without consultation with their surviving descendants, our martyrs were being posthumously baptized” (Jordan Pearlson, “Involuntary conversion out of style,” The Toronto Star, October 21, 1995; emphasis mine).

The affront found in posthumous baptism is to the belief that the dead belong to us, which is, ironically, precisely the belief that motivates Mormons to practice it – the goal of proxy baptism is to unite you with your dead for eternity.  This sense of possession is affirmed in the Church’s official policies, sternly reiterated in the wake of each scandal: “The policy of the Church is that members can request these baptisms only for their own ancestors” – that is, for the dead who belong to you and to whom you will belong.

As not just a non-Mormon but a non-believer altogether, I’m inclined to think that the dead are indifferent to all of this, but not that the stakes are lessened for having more to do with us than with them.  For my own part, I freely hope that some LDS friends will remember me in the event of my demise – I don’t expect it to make a difference, but I can’t see any downside to hedging my bets.  Like the other dead, I’ll be beyond caring, but the living keep their own counsel.

  • Ryan T.

    “The answer, I think, is that the objections – like the practice itself – are not really about the dead, but about us, the living.”

    Excellent piece. Finally gets to the heart of the matter.

  • http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.com Christopher Smith

    Nicely said, Seth. I think you’re exactly right. As an iconoclast, I’ve never really understood or appreciated fights over possession of symbols. But to people for whom symbols are important, having “their” dead posthumously baptized is a lot like having a temple desecrated by unbelievers or the Ground Zero of a national tragedy desecrated by a mosque. There’s an element of magical thinking in this, I suspect. The sacredness of the symbol is regarded not as a fiction or a social construction, but as something real: something that can be lost, diluted, or destroyed through desecration.

  • http://www.StevenAbell.com Steven T Abell

    Another problem with this practice is what historians of the future may think they have reason to conclude when they happen upon a box of old Mormon records. One can talk about the good intentions behind posthumous baptism, and you’re free to “hedge your bets” if you wish. But my reputation belongs to me, even after I am dead. If someone wants to know who I was, I don’t want that cluttered up by some piece of paper I knew nothing about. I have a lot of respect for the Mormons in many regards, but what some of them are doing here constitutes theft and must stop. Happy to hear that the church’s official position prohibits the arbitrary application of this practice. Now, they need to do a better job of getting that message out to their fringe elements.

    • Jeremy P

      I fail to see how a record of your proxy baptism at a Mormon temple would ruin your reputation among geneologists hundreds of years from now.

  • http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.com Christopher Smith

    I should clarify that insofar as modern people believe in the reality of sacredness and desecration, it is probably at more of an intuitive level than a cognitive one.

  • Mary

    To a non- Mormon this is about lying! Well-intentioned, maybe, but lying about the deceased. What could be more personal and meaningful than the beliefs that animate a person’s life? It matters a great deal to the survivors that these not be misrepresented because they are part of the truth of the person’s life. I can’t imagine the pain of people like the Pearls, who not long after Jews were almost wiped from the earth, lost their son and, if that weren’t enough, watch him lied about now. This is not about silliness like “possessing” the dead or about “hedging your bets.” This is about telling the truth.

    • Jeremy

      The Mormons are not lying when they perform these baptisms. When a proxy baptism is performed, a record is kept that includes the date and location that the ceremony took place. Hundreds of years from now, genelogists will have access to the records and see that these people were obviously not Mormons when they died. A baptism of behalf of a deceased person is not added onto the church membership roles and does not make that person a Mormon (otherwise there would be hundreds of millions of Mormons on their membership records). A proxy baptism does not take away someone’s identity.

      Mormons do not believe that they are taking away people’s free will by being baptised in their favor. They do it with the belief that the person will be able to choose whether or not they want to accept the baptism.

  • Summer

    I think this practice is hideously offensive. To “baptize” someone without their permission — particularly if you DO believe in the effects of proxy baptism — is a blatant attempt to intercept the free will of that person by negating the spiritual path they chose to walk. In my faith, we are taught to NEVER perform spiritual rites on someone else without consent; to interfere with free will is the worst thing you can do to someone. The dead may be indifferent, but to see overzealous believers deliberately try to divert them from the spiritual afterlife they worked toward is repugnant to many of us living. Even if the act comes from a place of misguided compassion, it is still wrong.

    • Jeremy

      Saint Paul didn’t seem too upset about being baptised in favor of someone who had died.

      I Cor. 15:29 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?

  • Fred

    Just a couple of points. According to LDS doctrine, acceptance of any proxy baptism is voluntary on the part of the person for whom it is done. No member of the church that I’m aware of thinks that in doing work for the dead he is somehow compelling that person into the church. In common with most Christians, we believe that the only way to salvation is through Christ and that baptism is a necessary part of that process. Unlike many other Christians we don’t believe that death takes away the opportunity for salvation for those who have not accepted Christ in this life. If you want the full story, read Doctrine and Covenants 138.

    As to someone looking at LDS records in the far future and confusing some poor researcher as to your religion, the records are pretty clear about dates and places. If your baptism date is later than your death date, I suspect even the dullest researcher would realize you did not live as a Mormon


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