Baptism for the Dead

The Mormon Temple in Washington, D.C., rises by the Beltway—white marble walls, towers topped with golden spires, the tallest one supporting a gold angel who holds a golden horn to his lips. Only Mormons who pass a worthiness interview with their local bishop may enter the building, where, if truly worthy, they expect to have a spiritual experience. I visited that temple for the first time when I was twelve, and, for the first time, was baptized for dead people.

Mormon Temple, by smilla4 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mormon Temple, by smilla4 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Baptism by immersion, I had learned, effected a cleansing of sin. The water washed away unworthiness as though it never happened.

My own baptism happened years before on a sticky gray August evening, in the pond on our farm in upstate New York. My brother, nineteen years old, performed the ritual. In the photo from that day, we both wear all white. He holds my eight-year-old hand as we walk into the water, his hair an unruly puffball of brown curls. I’m small for my age, a child staring intently at the pond’s dark surface, a half-smile on my face. The silky muck of the pond bottom squished between my bare toes, my feet sinking into liquid earth up to my ankles. My family and a few male Mormon witnesses watched from the bank.

When my brother and I reached a point where the water came up to his waist, we stopped. I held onto his left arm and hand while he raised his right arm “to the square,” meaning his elbow held a ninety-degree angle, his hand open flat, fingers pointing to the sky. He spoke the words of the baptismal prayer: “Joanna Gardner, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Squeezing my eyes closed, trying not to think about the snapping turtles rumored to inhabit the pond’s murk, I let my knees bend, as instructed, so my brother could lower me backwards, like dipping a partner in a ballroom dance. Down I sank, all the way, my small body suddenly weightless beneath the black water. Then he pulled me back up. The witnesses confirmed that all of me submerged, including my white clothes. If even a hem popped up past the surface, we’d have to start over.

We slogged back up onto land, leaving my sins behind in the pond. Oil-black dirt streaked and splotched my brother’s lower half and all of me. I hurried as fast as the occasion allowed back to the house and into a hot shower. I shampooed twice before the water ran clear.

The temple, though, gleamed with a scrubbed, sterile, almost clinical cleanliness. When I entered in order to be baptized for the dead, it was in the company of a busload of other teenagers. Inside, adults dressed in white separated the boys from the girls. A woman with gray hair asked if anyone was having her period. One girl raised her hand and was shuffled off to Elsewhere, some unknown place of female disgrace. The woman in white hustled the rest of us into a dressing room with white lockers, bathrooms, and showers, like a bleached version of the gym at school.

The temple, I knew, served as the house of God on earth. That meant God the Father, I presumed, although I had the impression that the Son and the Holy Ghost visited as well. Mormons don’t believe in the traditional Christian Trinity, instead viewing each member of the Godhead as a discrete being. The Father and the Son have physical, male bodies. The Holy Ghost, having no flesh, form, substance, or appearance, only possesses the powers of whispered speech and inspiration, and is often called “the still small voice.”

The Holy Ghost occupies a place in the Godhead where a Mother belongs, in order to round out the incomplete family of Father and Son. “Holy Ghost” means “divine dead being”—the incorporeal residue of a once-living deity, a wistful but persistent memory from a shadowy past. So the Holy Ghost holds a space that begs for a Goddess. Were I still Mormon, I would be reprimanded by the male hierarchy, if not outright disciplined, for voicing such heresy. I would be shamed.

We all wore our Sunday best into the temple—modest dresses or skirts and blouses—but inside, that kind of outfit was called “street clothes,” and indicated worldliness, in direct contrast to worthiness. The woman supervised as we took everything off, including pantyhose and underwear, and changed into all-white temple wear. We were each loaned three white jumpsuits that zipped up the front, sewn from thick, scratchy polyester. With long sleeves, long pants, and collars to the neck, they looked like children’s zip-up pajamas. We each put on all three suits, one over the other, then the woman sent us into the baptismal room.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the jumpsuits were clearly meant to hide our bodies as much as possible even when the fabric got wet, to cloak our dirty flesh in the purity of the color white. The ugly, ill-fitting suits also rendered even the prettiest among us ridiculous, and wordlessly shamed us for having hips, breast, vaginas, and nipples. Along with the policy about unclean menstruation, those suits sought to smother any hint of the Goddess among us.

In the baptismal room, the smell of chlorine hung heavy on the humid air. My bare feet slipped a little on floor tile the color of ice. White walls glowed with the luster of ultra-gloss paint, and the acoustics echoed like at an indoor swimming pool. A male witness in all-white dress clothes—even white socks and white shoes—sat near the edge of the font, where he could watch the baptisms, the swell of his belly straining against the white buttons on his white shirt. Another man, also in white, sat at a computer, his desk facing the baptismal font.

Mormon doctrine holds that only Mormon baptism enables entrance into heaven, so anyone who lived before the church’s founding needs a posthumous chance to accept the Mormon creed. When a living person is baptized for a dead person, the dead person can choose to accept or reject the baptism in the afterlife. Only a living female can be baptized for a dead female, and only a living male can be baptized for a dead male.

Volunteer Mormon genealogists cull information from death records and cemeteries, then collate names into a database. The church’s goal is to complete proxy baptisms for every human who has ever lived, going all the way back to Adam and Eve. Only recently, after being caught baptizing Holocaust victims, has the church begun asking for permission from living relatives.

Mormon Temple Washington Baptistry, by More Good Foundation (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mormon Temple Washington Baptistry, by More Good Foundation (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The baptismal room had two levels: a higher floor on which we stood, and a lower level that supported the marble font full of water—a white basin maybe twice the size of a hot tub. I knew from photographs that the font rested on the backs of twelve sculpted oxen facing out from the center, one each for the twelve tribes of Israel. Over the font hung a suspended computer monitor with electric green rows of text flickering on a black screen. Steps led down into the water, which seemed blue as a bowl of sky.

In my memory, the walls recede into the distance, so the room seems to have no edges. One wall was made of soundproof glass. Outside the glass, silent people in street clothes watched the baptisms take place from a room carpeted in blue with church pews facing the glass. To the watchers, the ritual would seem silent, too, like a movie on mute.

A man I didn’t know, who wore all white—pants, tie, pressed dress shirt—stood in the water up to his waist, like my brother in the pond. When the woman in white gestured to me, I walked down the steps. My feet entered the warm water, then my calves, knees, thighs, belly. The jumpsuits clung to my skin in some places, ballooned out with air pockets in others.

The man held my right wrist in his left hand. He put my left hand on his left wrist and told me to hold on there and plug my nose with my right hand. Raising his right arm to the square, as my brother had done, the man rattled off a slightly different version of the baptismal prayer, speeding through the words and inserting a woman’s name which he read from the green list scrolling in alphabetical order on the monitor over the font: “Joanna Gardner, for and in behalf of Susan Jonas, who is dead, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

He put his right hand behind my back, pushed me backwards with his left hand—whoosh!—down and under, weightless, bodiless, into a realm of muffled blue bubbles then—whoosh!—pulled me back up.

I blinked the sting from my eyes, gasped for breath, clung to the man’s left arm, lurching to find my balance in the turbulence left in the wake of my plunge. He already raced through the next prayer: “Joanna Gardner for and in behalf of Susan Jones who is dead I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost amen”—whoosh!—I was under again. Then again. Again, again, again, probably fifteen times before my assigned baptisms were done and someone told me to leave. Dazed, disoriented, I climbed the steps, placing my feet carefully to keep from slipping in the river of water that flowed from my sodden white jumpsuits.

Back in the locker room, I peeled off the lead-heavy jumpsuits and threw them into a massive laundry basket of stretched white canvas. I made for the shower, where I turned the water so hot that steam billowed into the changing area. My skin flared flamingo pink.

Aphrodite, by Martin Teschner (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Aphrodite, by Martin Teschner (CC BY-ND 2.0)

I stood under the water far longer than necessary. I felt empty, unreal, confused. I was supposed to have had a transcendent experience, but in reality I’d been tossed around like a sack of potatoes in a coldly efficient assembly-line. I’d done nothing but put my body in the service of a ritual to be used as the men saw fit. I had no sense of my physical presence having helped anybody, living or dead. I couldn’t articulate my unhappiness at the time, but I knew that I felt unspiritual, unworthy, and therefore humiliated.

As a twelve-year-old child, I had no notion of the tricks of manipulation and indoctrination, or of the sexual overtones of rituals that shame girls for having unclean, sexual bodies while pressing those bodies into the hands of strange men for cleansing. I didn’t know what it meant to have men stand in constant judgment of a girl’s or woman’s worthiness, demanding her compliance in renouncing her unclean nature, her worldliness. I had no idea that much of what the church wants to wash away, what it calls “sin,” a Goddess might call “life,” whereas much of what the church calls “worthiness,” a Goddess might call “blind obedience at the expense of instinct and authenticity.”

Over my teenage years I was baptized for dozens of dead women. It’s easier now to see why, after all my metaphorical cleansings of sin, my first impulse was always to wash. It’s easy to imagine that instinct as the still, small voice of a Goddess long denied.

About Joanna Gardner

Joanna Gardner is a writer and mythologist. Her blog, Fire Angel Baby (, is not to be missed. She rules the forces of magic and can turn you into a toad. If you do find yourself as a toad, do not blame Joanna; she has connections in scary places (Athena) who may or may not decide to kick your puny ass.
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