Friday, November 22, 2013

repost of my necro-dunking story

As I mention from time to time, I am a baptized and confirmed Catholic (who thinks for myself and makes my own choices) but because my father's rather large family converted to Mormonism when he was young, anytime I am with that side of the family, I am exposed to elements of religious practice or culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm usually a bystander, but on occasions I've been right in the thick of things. I've already written about the time I was blessed in an LDS church. I will begin an I-don't-know-how-many-chapter series that may or may not be consecutive featuring my other major Mormon experiences. I will begin with something I rarely think about, but has come to the forefront of my mind since I wrote about it very briefly on the RFM bulletin board.

I was baptized for the dead. I know. I haven't even been formally dunked for myself Mormon-style -- the Mormons recognize neither the sprinkling done by the Catholic church nor the priest who sprinkles-- so how could I be baptized on behalf of some dead person? For that matter, why was I even allowed inside a temple? Here's how it all went down.

The summer I was 12,between my eighth- and ninth-grade years of school, I somehow got stuck staying with some of my LDS relatives in Utah for a week or two after my basketball camp (I'll explain about basketball camp another time) ended because my parents' cruise still had to make its way back around Cape Horn and up the Pacific coast. I was spending nights with an aunt whose husband, my uncle by marriage, was a stake president, which is the rough equivalent to a Catholic bishop. The LDS bishop of his ward (the rough equivalent to a Catholic parish priest) was another uncle by marriage. The stake was to have a Youth Temple Day on Friday of the week. All the youth ages 12 to 18 who were worthy of entrance in the temple would travel more than one hundred miles south to be baptized for the dead in a temple an hour or two south of the town in which my aunt and uncle lived because the town was home to an older and more historic temple than the one located a stone's throw away.

I initially mistook this ordinance as "Baptism of the Dead," wherein the Mormon youth would be charged with unloading dead bodies from stretchers, bags, or coffins, and dropping them into the pools of water supported by fake oxen heads that I had seen in pictures. Once again I was ever so glad not to be an official Mormon and not to be worthy to participate in this somewhat gruesome mission. The idea of even looking at a dead body, much less actually touching it and helping to drop it into a vat of water, then towing it out, gave me a severe case of the creepy-crawlies. I wondered if someone attached ropes to the bodies to make it easier to hall them in and out of the giant tubs they referred to as "fonts." I wondered a little about the logistics, but mostly I was just glad to be left out of the whole fiasco. Then I heard I was expected to tag along on this most macabre of field trips. While still less than thrilled to be dragged to Manti for this purpose, I was greatly relieved to learn that the dead were to be baptized by proxy, using our bodies. No actual cadavers wee involved.

The relatives seemed to have forgotten that I was never baptized ("Of course you were baptized! We would never have let you get this old without baptizing you!") As it turns out, all I needed were "interviews" with my bishop and a member of the stake presidency in order to determine my worthiness to enter the House of the Lord. I'm not sure how, when, or why these people suddenly changed their minds concerning my character. On a normal day, any one of my father's siblings or their spouses would have told you that I was a first-degree spawn of Satan, not worthy to color in a coloring book with pictures of LDS temples (because my coloring book renditions of temples always looked liked haunted houses when I colored them) much less to set foot in an actual temple. The truth of the matter is that a whole lot of LDS temples do look like haunted houses or spooky castles in real life to many people. When my family visited Washington, D.C., someone had spray-painted, "Surrender, Dorothy!" on an overpass above the Washington D.C. Beltway right where the Mormon Temple comes into view in obvious reference to that temple's resemblance to the castle in Oz. To borrow a line from Billy Joel, I didn't start the fire. I was hardly the first person to note the resemblance between L.D.S. temples and scary places.

Almost before I knew it, I was in an oversized van with a load of other kids from my age to eighteen, nearly all of them at least twice my size. My aunt had thought to grab a baptismal jumpsuit from the ward baptismal supply in hopes that, since it was made to fit an eight-year-old, it might not swallow me whole. It pretty much did anyway, but I wore a snapping white one-piece shirt, sort of like a Onesie, under it and my aunt stitched up the collar a bit so that I wouldn't slide out of the neck hole every time I was dunked and pulled up again. The baptismal jumpsuits in the temple were made for twelve-year-olds and older, so there's no way one of those would've remained on my meercat-shaped body through multiple trips under and out of  the water.

There was supposed to have been an interview process, but no one asked me a thing, because I certainly wouldn't have told them that the Book of Mormon was true or that Joseph Smith was any sort of a prophet. Someone handed me a form just before we walked into the temple. One uncle had signed, perjuring himself to state that he had interviewed me as bishop, and another had done the same in the Stake Presidency spot. I had in a bag my white Jesus jumpsuit made out of quilted fabric, sort of like an old-fashioned mattress cover, my white Onesie an extra pair of white undies, and my little piece of paper stating I was worthy to enter the House of the Lord. (I still have it, with no expiration date. I suppose could get into one off those temples any time I wanted to, as if I'd ever want to, were it not for the probability that the forms have been changed three or more times since then) I hadn't eaten anything since dinner the night before because fasting was mandated before temple baptisms, at least in that central Utah location..

We entered through the holiest of buildings to a basement -level locker room and put on our funky white mattress-cover jumpsuits, with mine being slightly funkier than average. We wandered into the large basement baptismal room where there was a large font of water held on the backs of fake oxen. Two men, wearing white pants, shirts, and ties, walked across ramps with railings on each side, then down  steps into the font filled with water. I remember hoping the water wasn't too cold The men who entered first would apparently do the dunking. The temple supervisors lined us up, There were two lines - one line of girls and one line of boys. The girls would be baptized by proxy for females who had lived and died on this Earth at some time in the past, while the boys would perform the same function for males.

I quickly found my way back to the girls' line and watched as a man in white garb held his hand up and uttered some prescripted words about baptizing someone in the name of whatever the dead person's name was in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Two men were watching each baptizer and baptizee to ascertain that the person went all the way under the water at the same time. If the person didn't, the procedure had to be repeated, with the name said over and the prayer said again. They were very official in their process. With larger girls or boys, the baptizers seemed to tire after dunking them more than a few times, and baptizers would have to alternate. Additionally, I noticed that the more physically developed girls received fewer dunks. One particularly buxom girl, whose buxomness became more apparent through her increasingly clingy and eventually almost transparent jumpsuit with each dunk, received only about seven dunks. This did not bode well for me. I kept moving to the back of the line, encouraging girls who had already had turns to take additional advantage of this opportunity to serve the Lord.

One older woman eventually noticed me. She thought I was merely reticent, so she took me by the hand and walked me to the head of the line, telling me, "There's nothing to be afraid of, dear." "Here's a new one," she said to the baptizer as I was helped down the steps and into the water.. The man showed me how to put my fingers over my nose. He said the scripted words, dipped me backwards into the water, then lifted me out. Typically the two men in the font alternated, with a man telling each of them a name to recite for his next dunk as the other guy was dunking his proxy. The two men soon figured out that I was such a lightweight that Man A could easily dunk me twice in the amount of time it took for Man B to dunk his boy once. They also probably noticed my absence of physical development, which might have made it awkward for them to continue baptizing anyone else so many times. There was certainly nothing about my physique that would make any man feel awkward to see me in wet clothing.

Boys kept coming and going in the line next to me while I was dunked repeatedly, two dunks for every single dunk of the boy being dunked by the other man. I became seriously afraid that these people were trying to drown me. No wonder my relatives had been so eager to perjure themselves on my temple recommend form. They finally found a way to get rid of the pesky Alexis once and for all, making it look like an accident in the process. I eventually grabbed the guy's arm before he could dunk me again and told him to slow down because I needed to catch my breath. He looked at me apologetically and said,"I'm sorry, honey." He helped me out of the font and I made my way back into the dressing room. Still attempting to catch my breath, I heard one of the men say, "How many times did you baptize that little girl, anyway?"

Another one said, "I'm not sure, but it must have been over a hundred. I bel that's some kind of a local record."

I hurried into dry clothing and on into the cafeteria to grab just a bit of food before making the trek back to my temporary home. My parents returned home from their cruisea few of days later, and I caught a plane from Salt Lake City to California. My dad picked me up at the airport. "What did you do in Utah?" he asked me.

"Do you know what 'Baptism for the Dead' is?" I asked him.

He looked at me for moment, then said, "No way!"

I shook my head yes.

He asked me if they baptized me in a regular church or swimming pool first. I told him no, they hadn't, and explained about the paper with my uncles' signatures, and the Onesie, and the jumpsuit that had to be practically sewn onto my body, and the apparent record number of dunks.

He just sort of looked straight ahead and whistled but didn't say anything else to me. As soon as we got home, he pulled my mother into their library before I even had a chance to greet her. I couldn't hear what was being said, but my dad's voice was getting more and more agitated, while my mother just laughed harder and harder.

Eventually they emerged from their library. My mother hugged me and said, "I hear you were baptized."

"More than a hundred times," I told her.

"Either you must have sinned a whole lot or you must be really in a state of grace now," my mother said.

My dad said he was going to call the temple and tell them that it was a mixup and that I was a non-member, because the baptisms I had done would need to be done over.

My mom asked him then if he really believed it made any difference.

"Not one damn bit," my dad muttered

"Then why don't you just leave well enough alone?" my mom asked him.

"OK," my dad answered, "but I'm also not leaving my kid with any of them again. They could marry her off in one of those damned temples before she's fourteen." {This has been edited to add that, for the record, my dad did leave me with one of them another ime, and  with even more disastrous results, but that story will ait until another day.]

I think my dad was confusing the mainstream LDS temples with those of Warren Jeffs' offshoot branch, but I didn't bother to argue because it wasn't as though I wanted to spend more time in one of either group's temples.


  1. Baptism for the Dead is a very strage doctrine and practice any way you look at it.