Back in the early days of the Mormon church, Jews and Catholics might have had a legitimate beef about baptizing the dead, since the Mormons had yet to perfect the process itself. Originally the Mormons, who have from the beginning demonstrated an admirably dogged literalness of mind, insisted on burying the dead before they went to heaven. As one might imagine, this insistence led to several difficulties beyond evoking the ire of Jews and Catholics whose recently departed were spirited away for baptism prior to a proper burial.
With regard to the mechanics of baptism for the dead, there was the general problem of body management. The early Mormons had a number of things to deal with, not the least of which was decay and spoilage. With all our modern conveniences, we sometimes forget what a huge issue spoilage must have been for our ancestors. Journals from that period record the consternation felt by the followers of the Prophet Joseph Smith as they attempted to carry out his directives for baptism of the dead.
In the tattered journal of Parley P. Pratt (kept under lock and key in church archives) we read this entry on July 29, 1843: “B. [Brigham Young?] and me, along with H. and J. [Hyrum and Joseph Smith?] lugged a couple of corpses from the undertaker’s just after midnight over to font in the basement of the temple to get bapatized [sic—Pratt’s spelling was based on how the word was pronounced in the 19th century]. What a holy mess! I wish J. had got his revelation in the winter when the rot hasn’t commenced to set in.”
Some scholars have claimed the early fathers of the Mormon church baptized dead bodies in the expectation of them being restored to life. Anyone familiar with Mormon theology would know that the early fathers were not quite so simple-minded. In fact, the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. having solved the mind/body problem with the assertion that spirit is merely matter more finely ground, knew you had to get that body baptized before it was six feet under; otherwise the finely granulated particles of spirit would simply seep away into the soil of the cemetery.
The Lord was always alert, at least in the early days, to difficulties encountered by his chosen people when they faithfully followed his rules. Thus, when the early Latter-day Saints had a very hard time baptizing dead bodies, the Lord stepped in and revised his commandment. The Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. was instructed to forget about baptizing dead folks before they were buried, and instead focus on baptizing them after they were in heaven.
This made it harder for the Lord, in that dead people arriving at the celestial port of entry had to twiddle their thumbs until living people down on earth got around to baptizing them by proxy. There was a lot of grumbling among the ranks of the recently dead, who soon tired of whiling away their time playing bingo, watching old movies, or singing karaoke until they could become Mormons.
Some intellectuals suggested that maybe the Lord wasn’t as omnipotent as he claimed to be, if he had to wait until people on earth baptized non-Mormons into the church. One well-known German philosopher is still cooling his heels in the celestial waiting room, punished for raising the question of the Lord’s omnipotence.
“Powerful is as powerful does,” the philosopher muttered night and day, and pretty soon dead people started crossing to the other side of the street when they saw him coming.
While the awaiting dead are reluctant to question the Lord’s power, a considerable number of them gripe about the favoritism shown to certain dead celebrities. The body of Anna Nicole Smith, for instance, was still warm when she was baptized into the Mormon church, and today she is the Relief Society president of her local ward. Dick Cheney, whose death has not been well publicized, is already moving up the ranks of the Celestial Seventies Quorum, and Princess Diana is now Brigham Young’s favorite wife.
In other celestial news, the Scientologists, unlike the Catholics and Jews, have pitched a proposal to get in on the baptism-for-the-dead business.
D.P. Sorensen writes satire for City Weekly.