My son got baptized on Saturday. He’s the second of my kids to be baptized, and hopefully he won’t come to regret it like his 10-year-old sister has. Aside from the fact that the organizers of this event thought it necessary to have two talks on the Holy Ghost instead of just one (aren’t these things long enough as it is?), it was a pretty good ordinance performance. (Do you like that? I almost said “ceremony,” but it didn’t sound kosher.) My younger son wanted to jump in the water with his brother afterward. He got as far as taking off his shoes, but then we had to move things along so that the next kid could have his sins washed away in a timely manner.
We waited what seemed like a very long time for my husband and son to get dressed in their dry clothes for the confirmation. Actually, it was a very long time, considering that no one had to put on make-up or pantyhose. But maybe it seemed extra-long because we had to fill the vacuum with testimonies. Unfortunately, the spirit wasn’t moving many of us. A couple of my in-laws managed to say a few words. My mother-in-law gave an especially heartfelt testimony about the doctrine of baptism for the dead. She talked about how neither of her parents had ever joined the church, but after her father died, her sons were able to do his work in the temple, and then she said that after her mother passes away, she’ll be able to do her work, too, “whether she likes it or not.”
That last part was a little joke. I mean, at least some of us laughed. I was either shaking my head or looking up to the heavens and praying for my husband and son to Godspeed it along. I mean no offense to my mother-in-law, who is dearer to me than I can say, and I don’t think I intend any offense to the whole concept of saving our dead. I confess that I don’t really get why it’s necessary to perform posthumous ordinances, but it’s one of those things I just accept and go along with because let’s face it, there are weirder things God could ask me to do. However, I remain a little troubled by the fact that we baptize people “whether they like it or not.”
Just to be clear, my grandmother-in-law gave her permission for her late husband’s temple work to be done, despite the fact that he’d shown absolutely no interest in belonging to the church while he was still alive. I reckon that she didn’t think it would matter one way or another, and it would make my mother-in-law happy–and I’m reckoning that she feels the same about the eventuality of her own posthumous temple work. I myself am the type of person who doesn’t worry much about what will happen after I die. I know more than a few Mormon women who worry about their husbands remarrying after they (the women, I mean) are dead; they don’t want to be forced to live in polygamous relationships in the hereafter. Me, I don’t care if my widowed husband remarries. I’ll be dead, you see. I don’t worry about living in polygamy, because if I’m in heaven, I’ll be happy, and if I’m not in heaven, husband-sharing is going to seem like pretty small potatoes, I think.
So yes, on the one hand it seems that souls remain free to choose even after death, and the ordinances are of no effect if the individual rejects them, so baptizing people whether they like it or not shouldn’t be a federal case. No harm, no foul, eh? But on the other hand, not everyone sees it that way–hence we are required to get permission from a living relative in order to perform ordinances for people who have died in the last ninety years.
My step-mother, who is not a Mormon, has explicitly told me that she does not want her temple work done after she dies. I think she’s pretty safe, since my father doesn’t really do the temple thing anymore, and her own children aren’t Mormons either, so it’s not really a potential issue. Neither I nor any of my siblings is particularly itching to force her into the fold–not because we don’t like her, but because we have a hard enough time getting to the temple to do work for people who might in a million years appreciate it.
The scriptures tell us that the same spirit that possesses us in this life will possess us in the life to come–meaning that we’re not going to become different people after we die, and therefore the time to repent is now. It’s not as if my step-mother hasn’t had ample opportunity to accept the gospel in this life. She knows all about it, she married into it, for Pete’s sake, and while she thinks it’s all well and good for the rest of us, she has specifically and emphatically said “no thanks”–because she doesn’t believe it. Really as simple as that. Lots of people explicitly decline the opportunity to become Mormons in this life, for whatever reason–and then their Mormon relatives go and do the work for them anyway. I wouldn’t call this a waste of time, but I wonder sometimes if we are more inclined to save the dead than the living because we can’t hear the dead protest.
My step-mother told me about a relative of hers who had been a Christian all his life, but his children were Mormons and they had him baptized after he was dead. My step-mother thought this was highly disrespectful, and said that the man would have been “very offended” that his children had gone against his wishes thus. I don’t doubt it. There’s no way to know, of course, how offended a dead person can be. I imagine that this man’s children did what they did out of love, just as my in-laws have done Grandpa’s work out of love (whether he liked it or not). But it would feel very strange to me to do work for someone who had specifically asked me not to. I don’t know that I could.
On the other hand, a friend of mine was telling me a while back about a relative who had explicitly told her again and again that she had better not even think of doing his temple work for him after he died. At the time she didn’t think she would–seeing how he didn’t want it, you know–but then he died, and a few months later she had the work done anyway. I told her that I couldn’t really see my way to doing that for someone I knew hadn’t wanted it. She said, “I know. I know. I thought the same thing, but how could I not? Knowing what I know, how could I not?”
I realize it’s not up to me to write anyone off in life or in death. Only God knows a person’s heart. So I don’t condemn this peculiar practice of ours. At the same time, does it make any sense that a person would reject the Gospel in this life but still somehow embrace it in the next? That seems to be the hope of many people doing their relatives’ temple work. If so, what implications does this have for our own repentance? (Specifically, my repentance for not doing my dead relatives’ temple work?)