Baptism, dead or alive

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?)


  1. Mark Brown says:

    I think this is because we still think of our deceased ancestors as family, and still persent with us in some way, and who doesn’t keep hoping that their family members will change their minds about a thing or two?

  2. does it make any sense that a person would reject the Gospel in this life but still somehow embrace it in the next?

    I think a better question is how do we determine if someone really had an opportunity in this life to accept the gospel? Some reject it out of hand. Others may study and even have a testimony of the gospel but not be fully converted and eventually leave the gospel for a variety of reasons.

    I believe that the logic is that after death their spirit will be more receptive to truth than in this life. Maybe someone else can substantiate that though…

  3. I guess it all points back to my ambivalence about needing to save the dead in the first place.

  4. Oh, that’s a little unfortunate. I don’t usually see testimony time during a child’s baptism. I guess I’m a little bit of a control freak because I want only specific people who are invited to speak at a baptism.
    As for doing work for the dead, it only seems fair to me. Either bastism is necessary, or it isn’t.
    Our culture tends to eschew rituals and “works” seems to be a Catholic thing. Many people reject the idea that baptism or religion is necessary.
    Think of it like voting. There is just something about actually casting your vote. Or if you can’t, having someone (legally) casting it for you.

  5. I didn’t mean to say it is legal for someone to cast your vote for you. I meant hypothectically!

  6. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? =)

    My grandfather was married to an LDS woman for over 25 years, and never joined the church himself. (When I’d ask him, he’d say he liked his iced tea too much, and then wink at me.) Within a year of his passing, my step-grandmother had his work done for him, including sealing him to her.

    I was of two minds at the time. I was glad he had the basic stuff done, but I knew it would really upset my mother if she were to find out, particularly about the sealing. (She really didn’t get along with her step-mother.) Of course, the sealing would then effectively pull in the other side of the family, and not my mom’s, but that’s just for me to know.

    It seems to me that he could have had his own ordinances done in life. Isn’t it cheating to do it this way?

  7. Margaret Blair Young says:

    I think God provides for all of his children and will make a way for all to partake in whatever they need. I think our temple attendance blesses us whether or not it blesses our deceased loved ones. That’s enough for me. (But I have no loved ones who haven’t been to the temple for themselves, and my genealogy has been done and redone probably ten times. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were coming at this fresh and as a new convert.)

  8. 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

    I don’t think this means what you think it means, which, granted, is how LDS have traditionally read it.

    It makes more sense, with the following verse, to read the “spirit that possesses” as something like “the master that owns.” That is, you cannot return to your God if you haven’t repented. And if such is the case, the spirit of the devil seals you HIS (possession.)


  9. Also note the mention of the spirit of the Lord withdrawing from you, lending further support to the idea that it is not an individual’s spirit that is being spoken of.

  10. Well, the fact that there are so many holes one could poke in this principle if one wanted to be difficult–ahem–makes me suspect that the temple work is primarily for us rather than for the dead, for whatever reason. So maybe it just goes to show that I especially need to do my dead relatives’ temple work, particularly if they don’t want it.

  11. The doctrine of restoration seems similar to “the same spirit” concept….

  12. Nitsav, I agree with your reading of the scripture. I didn’t mean to imply that it referred to personalities.

  13. If baptism is necessary, then it is necessary. Doing work for the dead was one of the first things I had a testimony of when I was investigating the church.

    Even if we do have the same spirit, foibles and all, that doesn’t mean that we can’t grow and learn. I hope those who reject the gospel in this life will find that they eventually have a better understanding of it and a willingness to accept it in the next. If not, then at least we tried!

  14. I get the impression a lot of people think the afterlife is going to be just like earthlife is. I disagree. We existed long before coming here; are we not going to be able to remember that after we die?

    Our perspectives will be vastly different after death. We’ll have knowledge of the pre-existence. We’ll have knowledge of our earth life that we didn’t while we were alive—we’ll be able to remember everything clearly, right? Not just the snatches we have now.

    I suspect many people will be kicking themselves and wishing they’d never insisted on their work not being done after they die, and glad when it is. But that’s just me. :)

  15. janeannechovy says:

    I completely get you on the ambivalence, Rebecca. Back before I had children I dabbled in genealogy a little bit. My 4g grandparents were early converts to the church from Canada, lived in Kirtland, and were sealed to each other in the Nauvoo temple. After emigrating to Utah, she left her husband when he decided to take a second wife. She later had their sealing cancelled and remarried. But of course some (I’m sure) well-meaning descendant has had them re-sealed. Still kind of burns me up, because it seems wayyyy presumptuous. But I suppose they’ll work everything out in the end.

  16. I’m not sure what I think about all of this. I’m still working on repenting for being glad that my step-mother has no intention of ever joining the church, and that one’s going to keep me occupied for awhile.

  17. Well, I’m hip to having a different perspective when we’re dead–I mean, it goes along with me not caring what goes on with the Earth people after I’m gone–but I wonder if there are other implications here, beyond baptism. If people are going to be kicking themselves in the hereafter (and I’ve no doubt they will), then won’t my excommunicated relatives also be kicking themselves? Can we rebaptize people by proxy too?

    Like I said, I don’t worry about stuff not working out. I assume it’ll all be fair and good. Actually, this is exactly the kind of conversation I usually have no patience with. I suppose I am just working out some frustration in public here.

  18. Mark Brown says:

    Can we rebaptize people by proxy too?

    There are precedents for posthumous restoration of blessings.

  19. This is my non-Mormon perspective. When I first read about this practice, I thought it a bit odd, slightly offensive, with a dash of presumptuous thrown in. Then I read more and educated myself on your religion. My husband and I have actually discussed this practice, and I like his take on it. Sure, he says, if I die, have the Taylors do a baptism for the dead for me — I don’t have to accept it on the other side if I don’t want — and you know, maybe they have it right — maybe I get to the other side and find out those Mormons were right all along and it’s something I want the option of. Keeping options open is how he looks at it. Me, well, I’m more afraid that I’ve too much reading on your faith, that I’m at the point where it’s offered to me but b/c I don’t convert, it’s considered a rejection of the faith, and therefore I’m banned to eternal hell or something like that (I forget the exact language but it’s something along those lines) and so the baptism of the dead isn’t an option. So, I walk the line of learning more and more, but not too much I suppose b/c I too want to keep options open, and converting, well, just isn’t an option. I would lose my family in the process.

  20. Aileen, if it helps you feel better, I think what it takes to truly reject the faith and close that door is probably up for debate. I tend to leave the door open as wide and as long as possible. God has no interest in sending people to hell; on the other hand I firmly believe He wants families to be as lasting and as loving as possible.

  21. If baptism is required for salvation, and we say we believe that that’s true, then dude, “sorry Grandma, but you were too obstinate in life, so I’m going to have to just refrain from giving you the opportunity to change your mind and enter into eternal bliss” is really an unclassy attitude to have. And if you don’t think baptism is required for salvation, or you say that you do but you really don’t, then you have bigger problems with Mormonism than whether or not to get your stepmother baptized after she passes on.

  22. Sarah, I think I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  23. Here’s my thing: I guess this business of redeeming the dead just makes redeeming the living seem a little less urgent. On the one hand, now is the time to prepare to meet God and don’t procrastinate the day of your repentance, etc., but on the other hand, just kidding, eternity’s a long time. This is all academic, but I’m perfectly happy to be baptized for Obstinate Grandma who’s never asked anyone not to baptize her posthumously, but then there’s Stepmother who has gone out of her way to say, “Do not baptize me after I’m dead. I DO NOT WANT IT.” I imagine she and I will be kicking it in Hell, with her always saying, “WHY didn’t you do my work for me, Rebecca? I thought you liked me!” and me saying, “Um…you asked me not to?” and her saying, “And you didn’t think it was possible I’d change my mind???” and on and on. I guess I don’t understand why I should feel more urgency for the salvation of the recently departed than I do for the salvation of the still-living. It’s one thing not to give up on people, so to speak, but kind of odd that we won’t “give up on them” in death when we were willing to effectively “give up” on getting them converted while they were still alive, because we didn’t want to annoy them, or whatever.

  24. I wonder what kind of blessings we may be denying our deceased kin if we don’t do the temple ordinances for them? Receiving gospel ordinances has been a real (though usually subtle) blessing to me in mortality. I believe that is also the case for the dead who receive vicarious ordinances– even for those who we don’t expect to accept them.

    Please don’t prejudge the wishes of the dead. Some of them were literally not in their right mind in mortality (I have been getting all too much experience with mental illness). Others may have been spiritually wounded by those around them.

    All of Heavenly Father’s children should have the opportunity to receive the very real healing and blessings that comes from Christ’s atonement through the ordinances of the gospel.

  25. If a relative directly asked me not to do his temple work I would not lose sleep in honoring his request. I would not be placing anyone else under that obligation. The next generation could do the work without guilt. The way I look at it the delay in time is something we are subject to our dearly departed is in the eternities with a different perspective about the “wait”.

  26. Rebecca, perhaps their perspectives will change when they are dead, so having the option open to them to accept the gospel at any stage they are ready for is really important. I don’t think “giving up on them” while they are living is what’s happening; it’s just that with our limited mortal tunnel vision it’s a lot easier to be stubborn and proud and not change our ways. Maybe it’ll take 1000 years for them to come around.

    On the other hand, another thing I’ve heard speculated about is that perhaps when people die who haven’t accepted the gospel feel the warmth and love of Christ, they will feel so much like they’ve “made it to Heaven,” that it will be very difficult to get them to accept the gospel, for they will feel like there’s no need. That’s why it’s still important to accept the gospel while we are in our mortal probation.

    Just thinking.

  27. And as usual, I agree with Susan M!

  28. Rebecca,

    I have seen various examples of this very thing play out in rather interesting ways.

    My wife’s parents were divorced when she was about 9 years old. Neither were members of the church (my wife joined when she was 15). Neither of them ever joined the church while they were living, although my mother in law seemed reconciled to the fact that we would perform proxy ordinances for her after she died. My father in law actually gave us his permission to baptise him (to cover all the bases, he said).

    The one thing my mother in law stressed all her life is that we were NOT to seal her to her ex husband. She threatened to come back and haunt my wife if that were to happen.

    But here’s the thing, the veil is very thin sometimes when you are doing family history work (as my wife does all the time). About 2 years ago she felt that her father had told her that it was time for them to be sealed. This caused her a great deal of distress because of the adamant feelings of her mother. But, a couple of days later, after agonizing over this, she felt that her mother also let her know that it was the right thing to do.

    We then set out to take care of her mother’s work so that they could be sealed, but she felt that the sealing needed to happen at the Salt Lake temple where we were married, so we made an appointment (since she was also going to be sealed to her parents). That day was wonderful, and because of a slight clerical error, we went through all the same things that had happened the day we were sealed.

    We are both convinced that everything that happened that day was so that her mother could see and experience it all, since she couldn’t do so when we were married.

    All of this has left me with the understanding that people do change their minds, and we should be willing to provide the necessary ordinances to them if they so desire them.

  29. If someone asked my not to do their work then I would likely honor that until the Spirit moved me to otherwise after their death. If that never happened, then I would have comfort in knowing the work would be done eventually (the work has to be done for every member of the human family before the judgment day, as I understand it) and I had kept my word.