Growing up, my family didn’t go to church together. We didn’t practice religion in any solemn way. But to the degree that we were anything, we were Mormons — Jack Mormons. That’s a lapsed Mormon or a not-really-great Mormon. But because of my mother’s side of the family, which was really Mormon, it was the faith that shaped our get-togethers, our food, and our heritage. It was the garden stake holding up our family tree.
Maybe our particular branch hung too low, making us rebellious in a religion that rewarded obedience because we were bad Mormons who drank caffeine and alcohol and cursed.
There were times during my childhood when someone got a wild hair and decided it was a good idea to send us to church. Just to keep a toe in, I guess. That meant my Uncle Tom and me. We were only seven years apart; Tom was my mom’s baby brother, and I was (so far) an only child, so he and I were sometimes more like brother and sister.
Tom and I were shipped off to Sunday School, dropped off by my Grandma Thelma, who was still in her nightgown and robe and never stopped the engine from running as we stepped out of her car in our Sunday best, which was always a little off.
“You two kids better behave in there,” she’d say, the car a safe distance from the church doors. “No horsing around.”
Years earlier, it must have been my mom, Judie, and her sister Jan, who had been dropped off in this way. Jan says we never did fit in because Mormon churches are so much about family and we never went with ours. Plus we smelled like cigarettes.
Despite this spotty church attendance, I ran into an experience with major spiritual consequences when I was 13: I was baptized for the dead.
Baptism for the dead is a ritual whereby a living person is baptized on behalf of a person who is deceased. According to church teachings (which I had a weak grasp of at best) souls who were not baptized while on Earth would spend eternity in some sort of holding pattern or spirit prison. But the good news, the church taught, was that someone could be baptized in place of the dead person, by proxy, offering the deceased a last-ditch chance to join the Mormon fold and send their soul on its way.
This type of baptism can only take place in a sacred temple, so one sunny Saturday morning, I was loaded into a van with a half-dozen other junior-high, female church members whose families were presumably more Mormon than mine and we drove three hours to the nearest temple in Mesa, Arizona. I wasn’t particularly close with any of the girls, but I wanted to fit in. Through a set of padded headphones the girls sitting on the bench seat in the back of the van were listening to the song “Cum on Feel the Noize” by Quiet Riot almost inaudibly. I took a turn listening: “Girls rock your boys. We’ll get wild, wild, wild.”
I’m sure this would not have been sanctioned by our chaperone, who, meanwhile, from the front passenger seat, was calling out LDS Young Women’s Values in a sing-songy voice: “Faith. Divine Nature. Individual Worth.” She pointed at three different girls — boom, boom, boom. When she got to me, she sang, “Choice and Accountability.”
A mild paranoia set in. Was I damaged goods? I didn’t know, but I really was trying to fit in with all the hair-braiding and girl chatter in the van.
When we arrived at the temple, we were ushered into an antechamber with rows of folding chairs set up like a press conference. Next, we were briefed on what would happen. I was preoccupied, staring at the volunteer force of senior citizens who staffed the temple — retired, cotton-topped church members with the time, inclination, and piety to serve. Each of them is dressed in spotless white clothing: white gloves, white dresses, and white suits. Old people in crisp, white clothes made the place look like cartoon heaven. It was quiet and orderly, and a little cool.
Next, we were led to a locker room where we were told to remove all of our street clothes. In their place, we would be given outfits in head-to-toe white, provided by the temple.
A no-nonsense grandmother was in charge of handing out the clothing; these included plain bras and full-bottomed underwear. Everything would be temple sanctioned. Her wizened eyes sized each of our pubescent bodies up and down with tremendous accuracy. She handed us the right-size bras, undies, and hand-sewn dresses. I wondered, Did anyone else wear these? Were there laundry facilities in the temple? How many souls had been saved in these panties? Now we were all dressed in white, too — no jewelry, no nail polish, no hair clips or gobbledygook. We looked like angels in a school play.
As architects know, there is significance to doorways and passageways, to the ways in which we enter or exit a space. At the temple, we were preparing to enter sacred space, leaving our worldly selves behind. From the van to the antechamber to the locker room, our giggling had gone from almost constant to nary a squeak. We were transformed into mute teen-angels padding barefoot towards the room with the grand baptismal font.
From early days, the church has placed a special emphasis on tracing one’s roots, and at least one of the reasons for this was to identify souls in a family that were not baptized in the Mormon faith. In this way, one could cherry-pick these souls, add their name to a temple list, and have someone baptized in their place.
One-by-one, I watch the girls in front of me taking their turns. After calling the living person by name, the priesthood-holding man performing the baptism said, "Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of [full name of deceased person], who is dead, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." Then the proxy is dunked in water.
But here’s the thing that was most fascinating to me: it wasn’t the feeling that this was a totally presumptuous move to pull on the dead, it wasn’t the ornate gold and marble room we found ourselves in, and it wasn’t the discovery that there were a whole bunch of other girls here, too, already in front of us, like a soul-saving assembly line — no, it was the teleprompter. A teleprompter sat right next to the big baptismal font. I was captivated by the high-tech nature of this baptizing operation. Names were being read fast like we were at a foreclosed-farm auction. I couldn’t even catch them out of the air.
All of a sudden, it was my turn. I stepped in the water. The priesthood-holding man began reading off the teleprompter. It’s just a jumble of words, “In the name of the father, and the son, and the…” DUNK. “Father, son, holy ghost…” DUNK.
There was only time to take one gulp of air before the dunking occurred again. I felt panicky. Shouldn’t I be hearing each dead person’s name distinctly? I was having trouble keeping track of how many times I had been dunked under the water. Am I doing this right? And then it was over as quickly as it had begun.
Just like that, I was baptized 13 times, for 13 women.
I felt bewildered and responsible. I wondered if those souls were sent on their way to the Kingdom of God the moment I was immersed in the temple waters or if their ascension to heaven was dependent on my own performance — on the measure of my own life? Is it, if I get in we all get in? Or were they given an opportunity to pass independent of my choices?
I did not know the answer because I was not a good Mormon. But I did feel in some small way responsible for these 13 souls. I couldn’t make out their names clearly at the time: Rachel, Mariam, Cassandra, Polly, Angeline, Teresa, Luisa, Amy, Ruth, Sarah, Nathalie, Belinda, Claire.
What if I, in all my flaws and imperfections, was their only hope? Where is this place that’s big enough to hold all of us? I didn’t know what I believed, but feeling a teenage allegiance to my ladies, I tried my best.
All these year later, I’m an adult, I’ve led a less-than-perfect life, and I’m not a practicing Mormon, but I still, from time to time, find myself thinking: Is it crazy of me to think that the dead ladies and I might all get along?
That day at the temple, as a young teenager, I don’t remember changing back into my street clothes. I was too busy wondering: Is this what Mormon heaven is supposed to look like? Is it supposed to look like this temple where everyone is wearing white pajamas? I didn’t know, but I hoped not. I hoped it didn’t look like the inside of a temple. I hoped it looked like nature, and smelled like fresh bread. I hoped everyone was welcome. I hoped the ladies and I formed an ultimate Frisbee club, or at least got together for potlucks.