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In recent weeks, many Americans have heard for the first time about the LDS Church's practice of "baptism for the dead," also known as "proxy baptism."

Some have been horrified by what they've heard about the little-known teaching, conjuring up images of a heavenly Spanish Inquisition and its coerced conversions. Many find it a symbolic rejection of all other faiths. Still others see it as an underhanded way to inflate Mormon membership figures. What is it really all about?

Here's a primer on the practice.

Why do Mormons do it?

Jesus preached in the New Testament that baptism was essential for entrance into heaven, which left Christians wondering for centuries about all those who didn't have that opportunity during their lives. To some, it seemed unjust for a loving God to require it.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith had what he believed was a divinely directed solution: Have living people do the ritual vicariously for the unbaptized dead. Smith took literally Paul's statement in I Corinthians 15:29, which reads (in the King James Bible): "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?"

The first proxy baptisms were performed in the Mississippi River in the early 1840s, but then were relegated to LDS temples, where they have continued until this day. Mormons believe such saving ordinances must take place here on Earth, not in the hereafter.

But a proxy baptism doesn't mean that person is now a Mormon in heaven. Latter-day Saints believe those who have passed on can choose to accept or reject the rite done in their names. It is a free-will offering. Those who agree to it presumably would then, the church's website says, "follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world."

The ultimate aim is to provide that opportunity for everyone who has ever lived, starting with the family lines of living Latter-day Saints.

Are the dead who are baptized counted as Mormons?

No. Their names are not added to the church's membership rolls. If they were, the 14 million-member faith's numbers would swell by tens of millions more. The church insists that a proxy baptism does not change the religion or heritage of the recipient or of the recipient's descendants.

Why do they do it in a temple, rather than a Mormon chapel?

Mormons believe proxy baptism is such sacred work that they needed to build a "House of the Lord" for these rituals. In every LDS temple, then, there is a room — typically in the basement, but not always — with a large font of water in the center. The font rests on the backs of 12 oxen facing east, west, south and north, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

Who does these proxy baptisms?

Generally younger Mormons between ages 12 and 20, with males standing in for deceased males, females for females.

How is it done?

A white-clothed young man or woman, standing in a font of water about waist-high, represents the dead person. He or she is then immersed after the adult male baptizer (also wearing white) says these words: "Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of [name of the deceased] in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen" These are the same words that are said for a living baptism, without the words "for and in behalf of."

How do they get the names to baptize?

LDS members have been collecting their ancestors' names, countries of origin, birth and death dates since the 1840s. That led to the creation of its vast genealogical holdings, which houses billions of census records, church registers and vital records from across the globe. Many of these records are painstakingly entered into a massive computer system by volunteers. The data are open and available to everyone, not just to Mormons.

Why do some find the practice offensive?

To many, the Mormon effort to baptize the world's dead seems an affront to those who were clearly involved in other faiths or no faith when they were alive. Given the history of forced conversions, it is particularly painful in the case of potent symbols of their faith — think Gandhi, Mother Teresa or any pope. The LDS practice also seems like the height of arrogance to presume that one has to be a Mormon to enter heaven.

When it was discovered that a proxy baptism had been done for The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl, who in 2001 was beheaded in Pakistan, his parents voiced the concern of many others.

"Danny's soul was redeemed through the life that he lived and the values that he upheld," they told The Boston Globe. "He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed."

Why are Jewish Holocaust victims exempt from the practice?

Beginning in the early 1990s, Jewish leaders asked the LDS Church to remove Holocaust victims from their list of candidates for vicarious baptism. The Mormon practice was particularly abhorrent to Jews, who had suffered so greatly for their faith. The Jewish representatives were satisfied when the Utah-based church agreed to remove Holocaust names and bar any future submissions of this group, except for those directly related to current Latter-day Saints. Through the years, however, many Holocaust victims continued to reappear in the database. Finally, in 2010, the church installed a new computer system that promised greater safeguards against the names returning.

The agreement, said LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson, "is an unprecedented gesture of respect to those who gave their lives in the Holocaust."

What steps have LDS officials taken to prevent inappropriate names from entering the system?

The church's computer system automatically blocks the submission of names that have been deemed inappropriate. If any Mormons want to enter the name of a Holocaust victim they believe is related to them, for example, they must be interviewed by a Family History Department representative to prove their connection.

"It takes a good deal of deception and manipulation," according to a recent church statement, "to get an improper submission through the safeguards we have put in place."

But the system is hardly foolproof. A well-placed typo could allow a submitter or a mischief maker to sidestep the safeguards. If a submitter purposely abuses the system, LDS officials are prepared to suspend the abuser's access —which they have done on occasion — or even take church disciplinary action.

Would the LDS Church ever stop doing proxy baptisms?

This is a purely hypothetical proposition. Temple work for the dead is one the church's main missions. But if it somehow were discontinued, that could mean the church would no longer expend the money and manpower to assemble, organize and publicize the records. Millions of people beyond Mormonism who are interested in their family history — genealogy is a huge and burgeoning industry — would lose out.

However, this scenario is highly unlikely.