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Baptizing a Dead Guy

No, this has nothing to do with Monty Python. But it is a true and rather humorous story about myself. Nothing in particular brought up this memory, but while it's here, I don't mind sharing it.

When I was a newly ordained priest, experiencing my first year of ministry. I got a call from a family that wanted a priest to come out to bless their family member that was dying. I took the call, ran about gathering what I would need and drove to their house. I introduced myself at the door and asked where “Jack,” the man who they asked to have blessed, was.

A woman ushered me into a quiet room, where her husband lay on a couch. He didn’t look well, with an ashen gray color that worried me. I sat next to him and took his hand, asking the family that trickled into the room if he had had the sacrament of the anointing yet.

No, they shook their heads, to their knowledge Jack hadn’t received the sacrament of the sick.

"Well," I asked, "I brought the Eucharist with me. Our Lord! Has Jack made his first communion?" Again, the family looked at each other quizzically, then shook their heads no.

I started to get excited. "Please tell me," I pressed, "has Jack even been baptized?" Again, the family shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads doubtfully.

I smiled a grand smile and put both my hands on Jack’s, saying: "This is great news, Jack. With your permission, I’d like to baptize you, and then I can give you the sacraments of confirmation, communion, and healing of the sick!" He didn’t say anything, so I turned to the family for confirmation. They shrugged it would be alright with them.

I looked to the woman I first met and asked her quickly to bring me a container of warm water, which I could bless and use to baptize Jack with. I had my books out and invited the family to gather in and around. The woman brought me the bowl of water and set it on the table near the couch.

I held Jack’s hand with one of mine, paging through my book of sacraments, not realizing his hand felt rather cool.

I asked who wanted to be the godparents. Then one of the family spoke with uncertainty, yet respectfully: “Father, is it alright to baptize the dead?”

"No," I said. "The Church doesn’t give sacraments to the dead."

And then I realized. Jack’s cold hand never moved. He never acknowledged my questions, suggestions, friendly overtures. Jack was dead!!

"Um," I said, following with a question, realizing the trap I'd set up for myself without knowing what I was doing because I was unobservant or green or both: "Is Jack…dead?"

"Oh, yes, Father," the woman told me. "He died shortly after I called you."

I apologized for my misunderstanding, blessed Jack’s body as I carefully extracted my hand from his, and bid the family farewell. They probably thought I was the weirdest priest they had ever met.

When I got back to the parish and told the secretary what happened, she burst out laughing and called the pastor in, who also roared with laughter. Then he leaned over the secretary's desk and knocked on it, calling out: “Jack? Jack? Are you there? Anybody home?”

That was a joke he continued to play out over the next few weeks.

When my family heard the story, they continued the same ritual for an even longer period of time.

Well, what is one to do when the world is laughing at you and you realize, after the shock wears off, that what happened was awfully funny? I laughed as well, and eventually things died down. But every distant now and then, I’ll remind my family just for the sake being able to laugh at myself, "Hey, guys, remember when I tried to baptize Jack, the dead man?" And everyone would break into laughter again, shaking their heads, wondering how I ever made it as far as I did.

I sometimes wonder that myself.

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Deacon Schwerdt
Deacon Schwerdt
Jan 20, 2023

About 20 years ago when I was at St. Mary’s in Palmdale, California, the pastor sent me to visit a lady and her husband in the hospital. They only spoke Spanish. I can’t remember if the mother was ill, or just there after the death of her newborn baby. I can’t remember if the baby was stillborn or not.

When I got there, the mother was holding her baby. It was naked, blue, obviously not alive. They asked me to baptize him. Like you in your story I was a “baby deacon” and told them that I could not baptize the baby because it was not alive. When I told the pastor, he told me that I should have said,…

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