Using genealogy, Mormons baptize spirits of dead

Press-Register, Alabama/August 11, 2012

Mobile, Alabama -- In a small library behind the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in West Mobile, researchers are busy trying to save souls.

With traditional resources like death and census records, and online services such as,, and, the Family History Center offers windows into the past for spiritual reasons.

"We believe in baptism of the dead by proxy," said Anita Curtis, former director of the center who now teaches seminary in the Mormon church in Mobile.

As explained on the faith's website,, the living stand in for the dead during baptism by immersion "because all who have lived on the earth have not had the opportunity to be baptized by proper authority during life."

Finding the names of the dead is essential to performing the ordinance.

The LDS's main Family History Center - considered the largest genealogy library in the world - is in Salt Lake City.

The church Family History Center in Mobile is one of several throughout the state, and also draws visitors from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Curtis said.

Having traced her own family back to 1495, Curtis now assists people exploring the past.

For those not Mormon - the library is open to the public - the information is of personal value.

For members of the LDS church, turning up long-lost names means a chance for descendants to pray for either their forebears or those unrelated to themselves who were not a part of the church.

Once found, the names are taken to a temple for the ceremony, which involves prayers and immersion.

The closest temples to Mobile are in Baton Rouge, La., and in Birmingham.

Mormons believe that their earthly conversion efforts can be accepted or rejected by the dead. That decision, she said, is not revealed immediately, but as believers now go on to enter the celestial realm.

She offered the image of loved ones gathering at a family banquet, but one, sadly, with some empty chairs.

"We believe that the spirits on the other side are still alive," Curtis said, "are still sentient beings. They just don't have bodies."

The church's belief and practice has caused controversy. Mormons in their history, for example, have baptized by proxy Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Curtis said that, since the 1990s, Mormons have been instructed not to baptize the Jewish dead, unless, she added, they were related.

There have been public accusations that the practice continues.

Curtis, raised Catholic, comes from a long line of French Catholics on both side of her family.

After she converted to Mormonism in 1980, she believed that it was her mission - indeed, her responsibility - to help seal family members together.

She stood in for the Mormon baptism of her late, Catholic mother. Her son did so for his grandfather. Proxies must be of the same gender as the person being baptized.

With Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, Thomas and Marjorie Cogsdell, wed for over a half-century and Mormon, were drawn to the church by the notion that families are "sealed" to one another, even after death.

"We been married for 56 years in this world," said Thomas Cogsdell, "but we're married for all eternity."

The Cogsdells, among the 6,000 or so members of the Mormon church in Alabama, a number estimated by Curtis, embrace the genealogy research.

In a thick book of family names for baptism, Marjorie's research reaches as far back as the 7th century - ancestor Idwal Turch, 664 A.D.

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