Best of Phoenix

Baptizing the Dead

Baptizing the Dead
Craig LaRotonda

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My ideas about the afterlife have always been mixed up. From a very early age, I had the uncanny feeling that my town eats people. Could just swallow them up or that a dark-hearted atmospheric miasma could spread over the town as undetectable as a high-pressure system, and hem folks in.

Maybe it started with seeing the wreckage of a four-seater plane crash when I was 9 years old. I ran with my classmates as fast as I could after school one day in the direction of the sirens. Kids with stronger legs shouting out what they were seeing to the slowpokes behind. I remember seeing the woman, of what looked like a man-and-wife team. Her head was hanging out of the crumpled aluminum-foil plane door. She had red hair. She was wearing a green sweater. I remember thinking, She looks like Christmas. She was slumped over and still wearing her seat belt. They tried to land their distressed Beechcraft Debonair in the middle of First Street. It broke in pieces, like so many abandoned green bottles of cheap Thunderbird wine. They tried to land their plane parallel to the railroad tracks.

What happened to people when they died like that, right in the middle of the action? One minute flying above my town and the next clipping their wings on First Street?

I didn’t know, but it’s the kind of thing I would lay pondering in the middle of the night. My bedroom windows open, listening closely for the sound of heavy boxcars pulling into town on the railroad tracks. Air brakes releasing like a breath held too long in your cheeks: pssshhhhhh.

As a kid, I believed in small acts of good luck to ward off bad things: picking up lost pennies, avoiding cracks in the pavement, making wishes on dandelion fluff and stray eyelashes. After seeing the plane wreckage, these activities increased. What else could I do?

My family was not religious, and we did not attend church together. But on and off, every once in a while, I attended the local Mormon church, cobbling together my own ideas about the afterlife.

My family didn’t look like the families I saw there. Not my dad’s long hair, nor my mom’s Equal Rights Amendment T-shirt and subscription to Ms. magazine. But still, I wondered about what happened to people when they died right in the middle of the action.

A few years went by. Then, at age 13, despite my infrequent attendance, I decided to take part in a ritual with major spiritual consequences. I was to be baptized for the dead. This is a special baptism whereby a living person is baptized on behalf of a person who is deceased.

Though I had a limited understanding of church teachings, what I gathered was that souls who were not baptized while on Earth would spend eternity in some sort of spirit layover or holding pattern. In my mind, I likened this experience to waiting in a big, busy, celestial Grand Central Station. Sitting on a marble floor staring up at the astronomical ceiling, or reading magazines waiting for a deli to open. Were there good magazines up there, I wondered? Was the woman with the red hair and the green sweater up there? Did people’s nails continue to grow? It’s a myth, but as a kid I’d heard that a dead person’s hair and nails grew even after burial and the image, horrifically, stuck. But the good news — the church taught — was that someone could be baptized in place of the dead person, by proxy, thus sending another soul on its way.

When a trip was organized, I decided to go. I would join a half-dozen young women on a three-hour drive from Winslow to the Mormon temple in Mesa.

But first, I needed to get a temple recommend. Mormons can’t just go waltzing into the temple, not even reverent, virginal, barely teenage ones. They must first be given permission, which is granted by a bishop who conducts a worthiness interview.

Now, just the idea of having to be interviewed about my “worthiness” put the idea of my own worth in my head in a new and confusing way. I hadn’t really considered it before, but now I wondered: What made someone worthy to stand in for a dead person? Must my “worthiness” remain for my whole entire life? Meaning, would the dead person be allowed to stay in Mormon heaven even if my own worth diminished later, say, when I was 16? If I had worth to this dead soul, how could I lose it?

I mentioned none of this to the bishop interviewing me. Instead, I listened as he explained that the act of proxy baptism was a blessing to both me and the person for whom I would do the work. This was a new twist. I had never thought about the afterlife like that. What would I do on behalf of someone else, if I thought it benefited them on the other side of the mortal veil? Shivers. That was a complicated string of thoughts.

Then, the day of the baptisms arrived.

A half-dozen teen girls including me, along with a couple of chaperones, rode in a white economy van with bench seats to the temple. One of our chaperones instructed that it was best to use the drive time to prepare, suggesting we listen to uplifting music, sing hymns, or read scripture. Something to help us feel the spirit. I wasn’t sure how to know if I was feeling the spirit or not, but I do remember one of the girls passing me a set of headphones playing Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize.” I took a turn listening: “Girls rock your boys. We’ll get wild, wild, wild.”

At the temple, after changing into all white clothing, including a white bra and underwear, we made our way to the baptismal font. In quick succession, I was baptized 13 times for 13 female souls. (Mormon baptisms are gender-specific.)

It happened in a flash. But as I changed back into my street clothes, the number seemed spookily significant. This baker’s dozen of female souls upped the ante. Of course, I knew people thought the number 13 was synonymous with bad luck. Why, some high-rise hotels just completely denied the existence of a 13th floor, skipping from the 12th floor right to the 14th. What did it possibly mean to be baptized for 13 dead women when I myself was 13 years old? Was I cursed?

It got worse. My own birthday fell on the 13th of April. So, I had turned 13 on the 13th, and now I’d been baptized for 13 dead women. This either had to be the worst luck ever, or the best.

It didn’t stop there. My mother was also born on the 13th, and so was my grandmother. Three generations of women, in the same family, with birthdays on the 13th. Different months, but all on the 13th. I suppose the church must have divvied up a roster of deceased people needing baptism, and, on that day, it just happened to be 13 souls. But it seemed to go way beyond coincidence. This seemed like serious pagan magic. Was 13 my witchy power number?

I didn’t mention any of this to my peers or the chaperones, perhaps because my focus on this sorcery was a way of quieting my deeper superstitions about that day. The superstitions that centered on the idea that, probably, I wasn’t doing this right. That I didn’t have enough piety, or solid Mormon training. That I was an impostor. Was I a subpar spiritual vessel?

Proxy baptism didn’t mean the dead people were instantly Mormon, of course, it only gave them the option to become Mormon if they wanted to, and leave the celestial Grand Central Station in the sky. I remember feeling both important and unimportant at the same time. It felt like a big responsibility, and also not specific to me at all.

Mormons have been performing proxy baptisms for nearly 180 years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ genealogical library is the largest of its kind in the world. It’s estimated to have collected more than 2 billion names. As recently as last April, Mormon leader Henry Eyring told a worldwide audience that more people should use the church’s vast genealogical databases to trace their roots and look for names of ancestors. If those ancestors missed the opportunity to hear the message of the church, someone in the family could be baptized in their place.

I did not bring names from my own family to my baptisms for the dead. I was assigned a set of names by the temple. Think about those you are going to be baptized for, the adults had said. But I didn’t want to think about these souls in some abstract, gauzy way. I wanted to know specifics. I wanted to know their earthly likes and dislikes. Who had they loved? What had they regretted? Who were these spirits? But I had nothing. I didn’t even know their names.

If I could influence their choices in the afterlife, could they affect mine in the here and now? Like a Freaky Friday movie sequel: Freaky Friday: Spirit World? When I was dead, would the souls recognize me?

Of course, very probably they did not know that some time into the future a distant relation, or, in my case, a complete stranger, would come along and decide that they needed to be baptized in the Mormon faith. Maybe they were having a very lovely time waiting in the celestial Grand Central Station, munching on a perfectly toasted bagel, when all of a sudden, just like that four-seater, single-engine airplane that tried to land on First Street, zap!

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Sativa Peterson
Contact: Sativa Peterson