Monday, July 09, 2007

Last Rites

We were discussing “last rites” in the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic church; so I googled it. I can remember priests anointing the bodies of those who had just died in great ritual – back in the early 90s. However, this practice goes against much theology – by the time a person is dead, the spirit is with God and anointing does nothing.

Last rites in both churches, on the other hand, have merged into varying forms of healing liturgy. One form is pretty much like the other. But, a healing Eucharist for a dying person is considered to be “food for the journey” (viaticum) and anointing (unction) is often done at the same time now.

The liturgies call for laying on of hands, anointing and healing prayers for those in all stages needing care – even the supposedly healthy who are getting older. And, the healing is not just for physical ills but also mental or emotional cares. No longer are the oil and elements reserved for the dying. They are open to everyone. Based on Jesus ministry, he healed the sick not just the dying.

Reconciliation (confession and forgiveness) can be done in private, semi-private or more public circumstances, though confession of specific sins often is done best in private. This reconciliation is normally part of the healing service for the sick or the dying with friends and family gathered round.

In the Episcopal Church, lay people sometimes do both healing services and anointing, but only a priest can “do” Eucharist. In the Roman church, only a priest may anoint or do Eucharist.

Well, now that I’ve gotten this sort of clear in my own mind, what do I make of all this change? Healers are healers no matter if they are ordained or not. Anointing with oil is a powerfully symbolic action that many cultures have recognized, but it was/is usually done by some sort of religious leader or a recognized lay healer. Anointing with oil can be effective when done by anyone who is recognized as having healing power. Eucharist is the sharing of food with the presence of Christ and is done regularly by mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and others who hold great respect for and from those present. Eucharist is not limited to the altar of a church with machinations of a priest.

So, here’s what I want when it’s my time to go (if I get a choice). I want my chosen family to gather for a good meal, some laughter, and some remembering. Then I want one of them to begin the prayers. We will all confess our sins in general and forgiveness will be pronounced. Then someone will anoint me, and I will die – not necessarily that day but within a reasonable time thereafter.

Last rites, the Christmas that Mom thought was her last, I cut the biggest Christmas tree that would fit in her living room. Friends and I cooked, and family and friends came for dinner, presents, laughter and memories. Last rites. Mom didn’t die until eight years later, but that was her last rites. That is how her family and friend will remember her. Good food, good company, good memories. What more can we ask?

6 comments:

klady said...

My mother recently visited us and kept repeating (as she is bound to do nowadays) the story of what the family did following the recent death of a friend of hers, Mrs. D. My mother was both pleased and appalled (if one can be both) at hearing that there was no formal funeral service but instead the family gathered in Mrs. D's home along with the former pastor of our Methodist church, who simply said a few words at some point and, due to his poor health, had his wife recite some prayers. It was not, however, anything like a funeral but rather was mostly laughter and tears and storytelling in the living room.

It was funny because first of all, it took my mother a long time to stomach my "conversion" to the Episcopal church, with its Eucharist (not a feature of our Methodist past), litanies, smells and bells, crucifixes, and, horrors of horrors, crossing ourselves like Roman Catholics. So why she should think it strange NOT to have a funeral mass in a church or at least funeral home service is something we couldn't fathom -- especially since she kept remarking that Rev. Dr. B. seemed to think it was just fine (he the epitome of the non-liturgical Methodism of my youth). Maybe she was fishing for some sort of approval from my priest-husband (though he's not one to bite when mom goes fishing). But knowing her, she was suddenly torn and confused, wanting it both ways, the mass in the Lady Chapel AND friends and family sharing food and storytelling.

I suspect that most all of us would want the latter most, whether we want the former as well. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts because I think they have helped me understand even better what mom might have been getting at.

Judith said...

I like your plan for your exit! May mine be the same!

One of the holiest experiences of my life was spending a lot of time with my friend Charles last summer, in the weeks before he died. All his friends were welcome in the sickroom, and on Charles's last day a lot of us gathered there with him, and spent the day remembering the funny events of his life, telling him how much he meant to us (even though he was in a coma, we thought he might hear us), taking turns getting up on the bed beside him, and eating various kinds of take-out food to keep ourselves going. I have never felt such love as I did in that room!

As far as annointing goes, you're right about not having to have a collar -- as a lay person I have many times visited the sick with the (pre-consecrated) Eucharist, done laying-on of hands, and annointed with oil. Nobody has ever seemed to care that I'm not a priest.

Love, Judy

Cynthia said...

When I was in college I did my psychology internship at a small state hospital and visited folks on the hospice and MS floors.

One day just after I arrived a elderly woman had passed and the chaplain wanted me to witness the nurses bathing the woman's body and wrapping it in a shroud. The nurses bathed her gently with warm water and soap, speaking to her as though she were still alive, as though she was their mother. Then they towelled off her skin and wrapped her in a white cotton shroud. I stayed with the body until someone came to take it downstairs, like a vigil.

Anointing after death can be like this bathing ritual, a way of thanking God for the gift of this vessel of flesh that enabled us to be and do in God's world.

When my daughters were born, midwives attended their births and one of our first acts as parents was my husband and I giving our new baby a bath.

Seems like a nice way to enter and also to leave. I too would like to be surrounded by family and friends, with good food and drink all around, and then to sing and pray and celebrate the Eucharist, with anointing of oil and words of confession and forgivenenss.

sharecropper said...

I really missed the ritual bath when my Mom died. It was customary in the part of Mississippi where I was reared...at least when I was young. I sat vigil with a great aunt once, and it was a holy time.

Lately, I lost a friend at hospice. They bathed and clothed him in white. I waited with him and prayed until they came to take him away. I missed his dying by only a few minutes, but I was awed by the holy presence surrounding the body.

Perhaps anointing the body makes more sense when you think of life in holistic terms, as Jewish people do - body and soul are one. That's why the early Christians believed in the resurrection of the body. The absence of the soul after death (if it really is absent) does not mean that the body is not still God's handiwork. Oh, but maybe this is another blog later.

Caminante said...

I always think it takes a bit of time for the air molecules to rearrange themselves right after someone has died. That is why I tell the family they don't have to hurry to call the funeral home. Take some time, be still, let the universe realign itself (as much as is possible), let the veil between heaven and earth close and then remind themselves that they have been in a very holy space, a liminal moment and that they have to be very careful upon reentering 'the world.' I also think the spirit lingers, another reason not to hurry. I have gotten in trouble with the undertaken only once and that is because the family took a lot longer than I thought, like 5 hours, and he was a bit concerned about the hastening of the decomposition process.

Grandmère Mimi said...

However, this practice goes against much theology – by the time a person is dead, the spirit is with God and anointing does nothing.

God's time is not our time. What about the Communion of Saints? I believe that they are present with us when we join to pray.

I have experienced the powerful presence of the holy ones who have gone before us at St. Kevin's Monastery at Glendalough in Ireland. It was holy ground for me.

I don't think it matters if the person is anointed after the breath of life has left. I like this that you say, Caminante:

Take some time, be still, let the universe realign itself (as much as is possible), let the veil between heaven and earth close and then remind themselves that they have been in a very holy space, a liminal moment and that they have to be very careful upon reentering 'the world.' I also think the spirit lingers, another reason not to hurry.