Holiness to the Dead—The House of the Dead (Part Two)

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[ THE STORY SO FAR:  In Part One, five intrepid adventurers entered the building that houses the new LDS temple in Manhattan to take one in a month-long series of public tours of the renovation. After a brief look at the portion of the building where regular Sunday services take place and the viewing of a slickly produced video presentation, the group prepared to brave the secrets of the temple proper. . . . ]

All ye who enter

Brother Creigh halted our unwieldy group near the third-floor elevators. "It looks like there are too many of us to ride down in one load," he said. "We'll fit as many on as we can, but if any of you are athletes you can feel free to take the stairs and meet us on the first floor."

Only in a Mormon temple is an athlete defined as someone who can successfully walk down two flights of stairs. Yes, Brother Creigh was cracking a little wise, but since the average age for temple workers and patrons is on the elderly side of senior citizen, the implication of his joke was more true than he had probably intended.

As people crowded into the elevator, the five of us opted to display our superior athletic prowess. Laura in particular was eager to avoid the elevator because the building was making her feel claustrophobic already. She fairly vibrated with nervousness and had since we entered the building. She had already heard plenty from me about what goes on in a Mormon temple, and had been served several helpings of more incendiary material from her born-again mother. As curious as she was to see the inner workings for herself, Laura did not like being inside a Mormon stronghold.

When Laura is uncomfortable, she tends to laugh more than usual, so as we and a few other tourgoers descended the stairs there was a bit more hilarity than Brother Creigh probably would have deemed appropriate. But hey, we weren't inside the temple proper yet, and we managed to work most of it out of our systems before we rejoined the main group on the first floor.

Brother Creigh led the group back along the dogleg we had originally negotiated on the way into the building. He halted us in a cramped area just inside the main entrance. "Now we're about to enter the temple itself," he said. "If you look right up there behind you, there's a phrase engraved over the front entrance that you'll find somewhere on every temple."

We turned to look. The entrance was four doors wide and was framed in a metal that looked like (but probably wasn't) weathered bronze. Engraved in the lintel over the central doors were these words:

HOLINESS TO THE LORD    THE HOUSE OF THE LORD
"That's to remind us," said Brother Creigh, "that we are entering the House of the Lord, very literally. The temple, unlike regular church buildings, is where the Lord dwells on earth."

He didn't mention that after the temple's dedication, the Lord would take residence and begin to charge admission.

Greasing God's palm

Opposite the main doors an entryway two people wide led into the temple. Brother Creigh guided us through it—I swear, Laura was emitting an audible tone by this point—and into an anteroom dominated on its rear wall by a stained-glass tableau brightly from behind. A little lectern or reception desk was centered a yard or two inside the entryway. Brother Creigh took up position behind it.

"Now, for regular church activities, you would come into the building and go right. For admission to the temple, however, you come straight in this way and check in with your temple recommend. This is literally a card you can carry in your wallet that's been signed by your bishop and other leaders, maybe an, um, area president, that says you've been found worthy to enter the temple. This is good for one year, and it will get you into any temple anywhere in the world."

Brother Creigh did not volunteer any details about what it means to be "found worthy," nor did anyone in the tour group ask, that I heard. Leaving aside the qualifications you might expect—refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage, abstaining from use of coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco, etc.—the two most important requirements for temple admission are:

  1. The disavowal of any connection with or sympathy for apostate groups or those who seek to destroy the Church.
  2. The payment of a full ten percent of your income as a tithe to the Church.
Only if you measure up to this standard can you be admitted to an LDS temple. I assume this is so you will have demonstrated a sufficient commitment to the Church that you won't later go around after your initiation blabbing to gentiles about what you've seen. As you may have inferred, this strategy doesn't always work, but it does enough of the time that I'm sure it won't change anytime soon.

I see wet people

From the anteroom, Brother Creigh led us left into another bright passage. A twist and turn or three brought us into the baptistery, a high-ceilinged chamber that housed a huge white basin resting on the backs of twelve sculpted oxen. The oxen were arranged in an outward-facing circle and appeared to have been carved from white stone, though they could just as plausibly have been constructed of plaster applied to a supporting armature. A short flight of steps to either side of the circle gave access to a sort of balcony running around three walls of the baptistery. The floor of the balcony was almost level with the lip of the basin.

We trooped up the steps and arrayed ourselves in a ragged semicircle around the basin. Inside, the basin was lined with pale blue tile and filled with about four feet of clear water. Five or six steps led down into the basin from where we were standing. The air around the font was cool, almost cold, but not humid at all.

"This is the baptismal font, where one of the important ordinances of the temple takes place," said Brother Creigh. "Now, if you've looked behind you there on the back wall, you've probably noticed that large painting." In fact, we all had; a gigantic oil canvas filled the available wall space behind the balcony, picturing a river that meandered through a scrubby brown landscape. "That's the River Jordan, where Jesus Christ was baptized. As Latter-day Saints, we believe in emulating Christ's example in all things, so we become baptized as a sign that we're his followers."

Laura tapped me on the arm and lifted one of her feet enough that I could see the sole. She had apparently snagged her plastic slipper on something and ripped a hole in it the size of a quarter. She seemed chagrined and pleased in equal measure to be tracking some of the dust of her feet across the pristine temple carpets.

"I wasn't raised in the Church myself. I was in my twenties in college when I was baptized. My children were born in the faith and were baptized at the age of eight. But we were all baptized in humbler fonts than this, in regular meetinghouses. This font, as you saw coming into the baptistery, is supported on the backs of twelve oxen, representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and a different kind of ordinance takes place in it. What we do here is called 'baptism for the dead.'"

Brother Creigh spoke delicately, as if he knew he might be treading on tricky ground. "In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians: 'Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?' You see, baptism is a necessary step in following Christ, but what about the many, many people who have lived on the earth but never heard of Christ? We believe in performing this baptism for them, on their behalf, which is why the LDS people do genealogy. We feel a great desire to find out who our ancestors are, and when we do we bring their names to the temple so we can be baptized on their behalf. Children do this for their ancestors starting at the age of twelve."

His description made it sound as if baptism for the dead were a leisurely family affair performed sparingly and only for direct ancestors. While this is sometimes the case, the predominant mode in an operating temple baptistery is one of quiet but deadly efficiency. One mission of the LDS Church is to redeem all the dead, and to this end its members pore tirelessly over old records from across the world, microfilming as they go and compiling a vast database of as many names of dead people as possible. As new names are turned up, these get fed into temple computers. Youngsters of age twelve and above then descend on the temple in regimented droves, dress in white clothes, and await their turns to be baptized in rapid succession on behalf of a bewildering number of dead people apiece.

While we were hanging out in front of the temple before the tour, I had described for my companions my own first experiences with baptism for the dead, when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember entering a dressing room at the Ogden Utah Temple with other boys from my ward to change into pure white coveralls. We then queued up together with the girls in the baptistery. When my turn arrived, I climbed down into the warm water of the font where an older man in white clothing awaited. A television monitor was mounted near the font, on and the screen appeared a name and a set of dates. The name sounded Dutch or German, and the dates were from the late 17th Century. The man raised his right hand, rattled off a quick invocation that included my name and the name on the screen, then dunked my skinny frame backward in the water as I bent at the knees. As he raised me back into a standing a position and I sputtered for breath, a new name appeared on the screen and down I went again.

This happened thirty times in all. The whole process took less than five minutes.

Standing in the Manhattan baptistery, I looked around for any trace of a computer screen or a place where one could be mounted. I could find none. When it went into operation, that room would be like an Ellis Island for the dead, processing vast hordes of departed souls through Heaven's bureaucracy at assembly-line speeds. But that apparently was not the impression we were meant to take away from our tour—especially given that some Jewish groups are still locked in legal battle with the Church over its wholesale baptizing of Holocaust victims.

"Being baptized on behalf of deceased ancestors is such a special experience for young people," Brother Creigh said. "Many report feeling that those souls are present during the ordinance, and that they're conveying their gratitude and joy at finally getting to partake of its sacred blessings."

I had heard many tales growing up of people who didn't just sense their spectral benefectors in the baptistery but actually saw them and sometimes heard them speak. Such reports are so much hysterical rubbish, but as Brother Creigh led us back out of the room a certain spooky ambience seemed to tag along.

Me and Yeshua down by the churchyard

We trooped back into the anteroom, this time passing behind the check-in desk and pausing near the large stained-glass display. It consisted of three panels. The two flanking panels were merely decorative, while the wider center panel showed Jesus walking down a country road in the company of two robed men. One man had a beard, while the other was clean-shaven and balding.

"As we continue through the temple," said Brother Creigh, "you'll notice how much art there is throughout. This is original art, these beautiful and uplifting works, and we've spared no effort in providing it. This is the House of the Lord, after all, and nothing is too good for the Lord. This beautiful piece of stained glass, for instance, was commissioned especially for the temple. It depicts Jesus Christ on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. If you remember from the New Testament, two of his disciples were walking along this road when they encountered a stranger . . ."

As Brother Creigh related this Bible story, Bob leaned over to me and said softly, "Looking at this picture, you know the thing I never realized? That one of Christ's disciples was Paul Simon."

Instructions from Big Brother

The next stop on our tour was the fifth floor, to which another beehive-festooned elevator whisked us in two batches. Brother Creigh led us to the heart of this level via what I presume was a shortcut through a ladies' changing room. (I can't think of any other reason why the Church would want to show us what was essentially a locker room.) This almost resulted in half the group wandering lost in the wilderness, though, when one older woman near the middle of the pack failed to keep up with the folks in front of her. When my contingent, in the rearguard of the tour, rounded the corner into a narrow passageway, we found this woman and a couple of other folks dithering back and forth between two different doors, unsure through which the vanguard had passed. Finally some clever soul thought to read the signs next to the doors and successfully identified the ladies' changing room. We passed quickly through it and caught up with the rest of the group in short order.

We gathered in a little nexus doorways and intersecting passages. One or two other tour groups were trying to negotiate this area at the same time, and their jostlings caused us to contract into a tighter and tighter knot, like an amoeba prodded by a microfilament. As we waited for the way to clear, I overheard someone asking Brother Creigh about the symbolism of the beehive. He offered this person a somewhat more expansive explanation than Elder Bush had given earlier, then went on to expound on temple symbolism. "For instance," he said, "as you look around you might see stars worked into the design here and there. . . ."

At last the way was clear for us to file into what Brother Creigh told us was an "instruction room." This was a rather cramped little chamber with five or six rows of theater seats and an aisle down the center. At the front of the room, before a white wall, was a low altar topped with a velvet cushion. The other walls and the ceiling were painted with a mural depicting a bucolic landscape of trees, as if we stood in the middle of a forest glade. Beams of that same artificial-looking wood arched up the walls and across the ceiling, dividing the mural into panels. Brother Creigh invited us all to sit, if we liked. Laura was feeling very claustrophobic by this point and signaled to me with a shake of her head that she preferred to stand. We took up a position against the wall at the back of the room, at the end of the center aisle.

"Another important function of the temple for Latter-day Saints," said Brother Creigh, "is as a place of learning and instruction. To gain answers to the great questions of existence that we all have—where did I come from? why am I here? where am I going after this life?—is why members of the Church come here. They enter the temple and change into all-white clothing—white pants and shirts and ties for the brethren, long white dresses for the sisters—then assemble here in this room. The white clothing they wear symbolizes not just purity but also equality. With everyone dressed in white, you can't tell the difference between the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, the rich man and the poor man. Everyone is equal, just as they are in the eyes of the Lord."

I suppose that's how it works in theory, but on all my visits to the temple I'd never had any trouble telling the wealthy from those of more modest means. Even with white clothing, gradations of quality aren't that hard to detect. Furthermore, in most temples people who don't own their own white clothes are able to rent white jumpsuits for a small fee. Believe me, the jumpsuits stick out like a sore thumb. (I believe I read somewhere that the Manhattan temple does not feature clothing rental; there was just no room in the building for that and the requisite laundry facilities.)

"You'll notice the lovely mural here on the walls. This room is actually called the Creation Room, and the mural is symbolic of the creation of the earth." (To me it looked representational, not symbolic, and representational of the Garden of Eden at that. But that could just be me.) "It's in this beautiful setting that the Saints are instructed in the answers to those great questions I mentioned."

"Who does the instructing?" asked someone seated in the first row.

Aha, I thought, this should be an interesting revelation. Anticipating the answer, I looked straight up the back wall, above my head, to where I knew there would be a small rectangular opening or two.

"The instruction is done by video, projected onto this wall behind me," said Brother Creigh. If he understood how creepy and 1984-ish this sounded, he didn't let on. "The Saints watch and listen in reverence, and they learn where they came from before this life and all about the purpose of existence."

He went on a few moments more in that same non-informative vein while I reflected on how immeasurably more fascinating the unvarnished truth would have been. The video he mentioned was not some dystopian talking head, as the tourgoers might have imagined, but a filmed version of a peculiarly Mormon mystery play. In it, the story of the Creation is enacted, together with Lucifer's tempation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent Fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Along the way—and I shit you not—Adam and Eve are taught the handshakes and passwords that will enable them to enter God's Kingdom when they pass from this life. The white-clothed audience learns them too.

As I explained to my companions later that evening, this is what is known as the "endowment" ordinance. It may sound outlandish and fantastical, but I've seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, and given the secret shakes with my own right hand. If you don't believe me, it's not all that difficult to find a reliable transcript of the ceremony online and read it over for yourself.

In older temples the mystery play is performed live, with stiff elderly temple workers taking the parts of Elohim, Jehovah, Adam, Lucifer, and the rest of the gang. As the play progresses, the audience rises up and moves from room to room, the Creation Room giving way to the lush Garden Room yielding up to the desolate World Room. A new streamlined design was introduced in temples built after 1953, however, with the functions of those three rooms collapsed into one, and the mystery play projected as a movie. Various updates of the "temple film" were produced over the subsequent years and shown in rotation, with my personal favorite being one produced in 1969 and featuring none other than Gordon Jump (of WKRP in Cincinnati and Maytag repairman fame) in the role of the Apostle Peter. (And yes, I'm the wag who submitted the credits listing and plot summary to IMDB.com back in the late '90s. I garnered the information from a book by David John Buerger entitled The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship.)

We filed out of the Creation Room in an orderly fashion; another restless tour group was waiting outside to take our place. As Brother Creigh led us down the hall to our next destination, someone asked him if the instructions in the video presentation were different on different visits to the temple.

"No, it's the same instructions every time," said the unflappable Brother Creigh.

I don't know whether or not he realized how much like a recipe for brainwashing that sounded. And I wonder if anyone else in the group realized how much stranger the truth was than the thin veneer we were allowed to see.

TO BE CONCLUDED . . . !

[ original post:  http://shunn.livejournal.com/139158.html ]

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 24, 2004 10:54 PM.

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