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?