We were only just speaking of the rights of the dead—specifically whether we should respect their privacy. Now comes word that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., the Mormons) has posthumously baptized Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and, through its Family Search registry, considers them to be man and wife: “One of two—the other of course being Jefferson’s legal wife, Martha, who happens to be Sally Hemings’s half-sister; she and Hemings were both the daughters of Virginia plantation owner John Wayles.”
I recoiled when I first heard this. While the church apparently prohibits the submitting of Holocaust victims for proxy baptism, it does not similarly protect victims of our “peculiar institution.” But what does it mean to “protect” people who are dead and therefore, in any meaningful sense, beyond our protection? The journalist Joanna Brooks suggests that the people at stake in this argument are not Jefferson and Hemings—who, as we have established, are long dead—but we the living:
What do Mormons owe to the other human beings with whom we share custody for humanity’s dead: human beings who may have similarly strong religious feelings about their ancestors, and who would like to see those ancestors rest in peace, without their names being said by strangers in unwelcome ceremonies? Or to those who would like to see their ancestors travel on, without being summoned by name back to traumatic relationships they did not choose?
To whom do the dead belong?