A time to die? Why I believe in the right to choose

It’s the beginning of a new year and the script is that we talk about hope. It was a challenging 2017 but things will be OK. New opportunities, fresh blessings, more love and more joy.

 

So why am I wanting to talk about death? Well, it’s personal and also professional.

A doctor watches over a deceased hospital patient.

By Rosie Harper

[I]t’s personal because I have just booked flights back to Switzerland to go to the funeral of my much loved uncle Albin. He died two days before Christmas, aged 82, gently and peacefully with his family around him. About six years ago his younger brother Otto also died peacefully with his family around him. The difference was that Albin died of old age and dementia, Otto died of a nasty aggressive brain tumour. Albin died ‘naturally’. Otto, being Swiss, was able to request and receive the help he needed to die in a dignified and pain-free peaceful way. This merciful intervention in no way changed the fact of his death, and even now the sorrow is hard to bear, but it did cut short the last bitter agonies of the manner of his dying.

It is professional because in the parish where I work there are a lot of funerals. Mostly the bereaved tell me of the immense kindness of all around; family and friends, doctors and nurses. They tell of the shock of sudden unexpected death and also the oblique conversations about the use of morphine. They also sometimes tell me of bad deaths. Deaths where there is no way of giving the dying person their final wish: ‘Please, dear God, please help me to die.’

Don’t tell me that the time of someone’s death is purely God’s business. That at the moment when all a human soul wants is for it to end, God stands at the end of the bed and says: ‘No my child, it is my will that you suffer just a few more days.’

That is pure fatalism and superstition. Even people who would use language such as ‘God has a plan for your life’ don’t actually mean that everything that happens to them from birth to death is controlled. Of course not. We rejoice in our free will, even in the knowledge that we risk misusing it. That’s part of the deal. Our conception is a risk. We may be born to loving parents, or our mother might have been kidnapped and raped. The will of God? Throughout our lives we make choices and many of them are life and death choices. To smoke or drink or over-eat. To enjoy extreme sports, to ride a motorbike. For all those things we choose and we also take responsibility.

When our lives are nearing the end there are now many societies where that degree of both choice and responsibility remains. That is not the case in the UK.

Just when you might think we need our freedom the most, the medical profession, by law, takes it away from us. Just when you might think that God would most honour the freedom he has given us, the Christian community takes it away from us.

I’m with Hans Küng. If the time comes, and it is necessary for me, I would find it a fulfilment of my life of faith to be able to say to God: ‘Loving Father, I thank you for the most wonderful gift of life. The burden of it is now too much for me to bear and so with every ounce of love and gratitude I can muster I give it back to you.’

Complete Article HERE!

How funeral traditions differ across Abrahamic religions

Funeral practices are deeply integrated in culture, reflecting beliefs and values around death. Offering an index of religion, funeral traditions in Abrahamic religions bear quite different stages as well as certain similarities

 

An Islamic funeral in Pakistan

By AYŞE BETÜL KAYAHAN

[H]aving become a subject of philosophy, psychology, sociology as much as it has of anthropology and theology, mortality has always been a matter of interest throughout history as well in the present day. There is even a scientific field named “thanatology,” the science of death.

The anthropology of death brings us the very different funerary customs that have been in practice throughout history.

To start with a common example, ancient Egyptians used to embalm the deceased and built giant pyramids to house the embalmed bodies of their kings and pharaohs. Other interesting burial traditions include those of the ancient Greeks, recorded in anthropological records or literary works like those in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

As far as can be understood from historical accounts telling about the funeral of Attila the Hun, ancient Turks used to show their grief by hurting themselves. Before the 6th century, Turks were burning the deceased with their belongings and horses, and keeping the ashes to bury in autumn or spring. Certain Chinese and Arabic accounts report that it was the Kirghiz people who were the first Turks to burn the body. However, it was after this century that Turks began to bury their deceased.

In Iran, dead bodies used to be buried before the arrival of Mazdaism (Zoroastrianism). Fire, soil, air and the water are considered as sacred in Mazdaism and the body must not pollute any of these four elements. There was no burning or burying but the deceased used to be abandoned outside. The same tradition was visible among the Sasanians, as they used to abandon the dead outside and bury the separated bones and flesh in a special containers called “Ossuarium” later on. Today modern Mazdaists bury their deceased. “Burial customs always have been an index of religion,” American scholar Richard Nelson Frye says.

According to Abrahamic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the appropriate way is to bury the deceased. It is believed that Cain (Qabil), the eldest son of Adam killed his brother Abel (Habil) and committed the first crime of murder. It was the first death on the earth and the first burial. It is still observed that Muslim and Jewish communities bury deceased people as a funerary custom following the order of the Quran and Torah. Cremation and embalming are strictly forbidden by Islam and Judaism. In both religions, burials take place as quickly as possible to honor the dead. Jews never hold a funeral on “Shabbat,” while there is no similar restriction in Islam.

Muslims and Jews prepare the body for burial by washing the body with warm water from head to feet. Jews call this process “Tahara.” Muslims apply “ghusl,” or the ritual of ablution. While washing, the body can be turned from one side to another to entirely clean it but it is never placed face down. In Islam and Judaism, the body is dressed in white burial shrouds and put in a simple wooden casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women.

In Islam, a person who is about to die is expected to say the “Shahada,” or the testimony of faith, which translates to, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” His family or close friends should encourage him to say it because it is regarded as one of the first pillars of Islam.

When the person dies, those present close the deceased’s eyes and cover the body with a clean sheet. Someone is expected to read the Quran. As soon as the “ghusl” and shrouding are done, the deceased’s coffin is taken to the mosque for the funeral prayer “Salat al-Janazah,” which is a communal duty among Muslims.

The deceased person is put in front of the imam and the community behind him faces to the “qibla,” the direction of Mecca, in the courtyard of the mosque. When the prayer ends, the casket should be transported to the cemetery for burial. The body should be placed in the grave on its right side, facing the qibla. A layer of wood is placed over the corpse and then the soil is filled. Following the burial service, the family of the deceased accepts visitors at home.

On the other hand, Jewish funerals take place at synagogues. A Jew who is a Cohen, a descendant of the priestly class, does not join the burial unless the deceased is a close relative since he is forbidden to come near the corpse. A Cohen is commanded to be in state of purity and avoid ritual defilement by a corpse which is ritually unclean.

Women wear conservative apparel and men wear jackets in dark color. The service is held by the rabbi and begins by cutting a black ribbon to symbolize the person’s leaving loved ones.

After the funeral service, people go to the cemetery where men carry the casket. With prayers, the deceased is put in the grave with the casket. Mourners tear their garments as an expression of grief, which is called “keriah.” They keep on doing it during the first mourning process called “shiva” which lasts seven days. In “shiva” mourners keep the traditions such as covering mirrors and lighting candles. People visit the home of bereaved. There the “kaddish” prayer is recited.

Once a Catholic dies, the priest visits the home with a cross and a vessel of holy water to sprinkle over the deceased’s body. There is no washing or bathing but embalming is acceptable. It is also an appropriate way for the viewing and wake and vigil, which is a period of spending time with deceased before the funeral service at home or a funeral home. Relatives and friends of the deceased come, praying and sharing the grief of the immediate family. This is the most appropriate time to eulogize as the “Requiem Mass” (Catholic Church service) does not permit eulogies.

During the wake, the body is put on display in a casket. When the casket is brought to the church, the priest leads the funeral mass. Holy water is sprinkled and there is an opening song and prayer, and a sermon takes place from the Bible and a psalm. When the mass is completed the coffin is taken to the graveyard for the rite of committal.

For Eastern Orthodox Christians, there are differences in the funeral service compared to Catholics. When an Orthodox is about to die, the priest should be there to hear the final confession and administer the “Holy Communion” to the person. The first step is preparing the body that includes washing and clothing. When the body is bathed and dressed, the priest sprinkles the holy water on the four sides of the casket before the body is placed inside. The priest reads the first “Panikhida” (a prayer service). The wake lasts three days and during this, the “Psalter” (The book of Psalms) is read out loud by family and friends.

After this, the body is brought to a church in a form of procession led by the cross. There the coffin is opened and a bowl of “Koliva” (a dish of boiled wheat with honey) is placed with a candle on top, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and the sweetness of heaven. A cross is placed in the deceased’s hand. Lit candles are distributed to those present in the funeral. The priest leads the “Divine Liturgy,” and recites “Memory Eternal.” Although saying goodbye differs in every society, from the preparation of the deceased to the disposal, the arrangements and funeral services in between actually show us all these funerary customs are important as much as for the bereaved of the deceased. The importance given to funerals is universal for honoring the deceased and consoling and sharing the pain of loss as well at the end of the day.

Complete Article HERE!

Americans want assisted suicide

Rev. Nancy Butler

On Wednesday the Rev. Nancy Butler of Riverside Family Church in Hartford died voluntarily. For two years she had been suffering the debilitating effects of ALS even as she continued to pastor the evangelical church she established in 2008 as “theologically open minded, diverse, empowering women and affirming of LGBT people.”

The letter she wrote to her flock last week begins:

I have decided to go off my feeding tube and vent this week and . . . how should I put it . . . die. I knew my suffering would reach this tipping point and caring for me would become impossibly demanding. What I didn’t know was whether or not God would want me to suck it up for some unseen purpose or end my life this way.

I am a little surprised God is confirming this decision. Nice to know He isn’t a sadist. He is oh so tender right now. He tells me my work is done and it’s the right time to come home.

Having a feeding tube removed does not legally count as assisted suicide, but we shouldn’t be fooled by the passive voice. Someone took the tube out, very likely a medical professional. Nancy Butler died of her own will, with assistance.

So did my mother Bernice, who consulted with her internist before deciding to stop eating and drinking six years ago. She was facing a painful death from peritoneal cancer and chose instead to end her life voluntarily. That was not, technically, assisted suicide either.

Assisted suicide is defined as “knowingly and intentionally providing a person with the knowledge or means or both required to commit suicide, including counseling about lethal doses of drugs, prescribing such lethal doses or supplying the drugs.”

Most Americans have no problem with that, so long as the person is facing a painful terminal disease. Indeed, according to a new study from LifeWay Research, fully two-thirds of them find it morally acceptable.

To be sure, a moral distinction can be drawn between providing a person with a lethal drug and withholding or withdrawing treatment or sustenance. But it’s a distinction without a difference, as far as most are concerned.

The moral issue, it seems, is not how death comes about but whether the terminally ill get to choose. The answer, increasingly, is yes. That goes for 70 percent of American Catholics, whose church has worked hard and with some success to prevent state approval of assisted suicide laws.

“The concept of physician-assisted suicide is a major affront to the teachings of the church,” Michael C. Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic conference, said last year.

But as a matter of public policy, the argument ought to be prudential. Will terminally ill persons be hustled into the next world without their really wanting to be?

The best empirical evidence we have in the U.S. comes from Oregon, where assisted suicide became legal in 1998. Since then, the annual number of legally sanctioned suicides has risen from 16 to 132, with a doubling since 2010.

That’s under four percent of Oregonians who died last year. Of them, 77 percent were dying of malignant cancers and 9 percent had ALS — as has been the case throughout the history of assisted suicide in the state.

I know that my mother chose what she wanted, and I’m confident that Nancy Butler did too. I’m with most other Americans in not wanting to stand in the way of those terminally ill persons who choose to do the same by way of lethal prescription. I cannot speak for God.

Complete Article HERE!

The Vatican may protest, but traditional funerals are dead and buried

A new decree forbids Catholics to scatter ashes, and insists on the sanctity of the cemetery. But in terms of burial options, the Vatican are way behind the times

By

‘Burial space in UK graveyards is at a premium, so people are moving towards alternative trends in the disposal of bodies.’
‘Burial space in UK graveyards is at a premium, so people are moving towards alternative trends in the disposal of bodies.’

[J]ust in time for the prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day next Wednesday, the Vatican has restated its position on what can be done with the ashes of the faithful. In short, no longer can Auntie be kept in a mantelpiece urn or grandad’s ashes scattered on his local team’s football pitch.

Concerned about the adoption of “new ideas contrary to the church’s faith” suggestive of “pantheism, naturalism or nihilism”, the Vatican document conflates ashes-scattering with a dangerously new age spirituality, stipulating instead that remains should be kept tangibly in a sacred place. The Catholic belief in bodily resurrection at the end of days makes this position unsurprising, and the church clearly has a vested interest in discouraging casual rituals outside their control, but it’s a proscription that doesn’t sit well with current trends in the UK. The Vatican may face a harder battle against creeping modernism in the matter of burial and funeral practices than they bargained for.

Burial space in the UK is at a premium. The Labour government’s 2007 plan to allow the reuse of graves was given the green light in London, but the toxicity of the topic has seen it languish “under review” ever since for the rest of England and Wales. A Scottish bill to permit such recycling was passed in March. But such measures won’t make a significant dent in the 75% cremation rate, and the scattering of ashes is still a huge trend – the Mountaineering Council of Scotland warns that the sheer volume of ashes on the most popular summits is such that it is causing dangerous chemical changes in the soil.

The Vatican rejects the idea of death as “the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration” that scattering in such natural environments represents; it also bans the use of ashes in memorial trinkets. In recent years, ashes have been used to make everything from records to tattoo ink, and such gung-ho going-ons have become associated with rock’n’roll abandon, from Keith Richards snorting his father’s remains, to the metal fan whose ashes were scattered in the mosh pit earlier this year. US experimental act Negativland went so far as to issue their new album this month with a small bag of the ashes of band member Don Joyce. Irreverent stuff, but the modern history of cremation in the UK started in no less paganistic style, with the failed prosecution of druid William Price for burning the body of his baby son on a pyre in 1884, setting a legal precedent that saw the practice legalised in 1902.

But cremation may not be where the individualism and valorisation of the natural world the church so fears is really thriving. Alternative trends in the disposal of bodies are moving towards burial. The Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG) represents more than 270 woodlands and meadows run as natural cemeteries in the UK; 20 years ago there was only one such facility. It is in natural burial that the idea of an unmediated return to the earth that the church has denounced is writ large, with bodies often buried without a coffin and the landscape managed sustainably to preserve its natural beauty.

Rosie Inman-Cook, head of the ANBG and of the Natural Death Centre (NDC), a charity that puts choice, family and respect for the environment at the centre of their funeral advice service, has written inspiringly about the wide range of funeral and burial options available in the UK today. In the words of Leedam Natural Heritage, which operates eight natural burial grounds, these alternatives “offer something gentler”. Indeed, this is all in a context of the rejection of the staid funerals of old, which belonged to a more emotionally buttoned-up past, with British Humanist Association-trained celebrants now conducting more than 7,000 funerals a year.

But more and more people are doing away with formal ceremony and professional celebrant altogether, instead taking the “direct-it-yourself” approach championed by Inman-Cook, or going for direct cremation, which involves no funeral at all. The fact that David Bowie chose this option cemented his image as the ultimate individualist, and the NDC has reported a rise in interest in this possibility.

With adherence to a faith’s doctrines always being on a sliding scale, and the Catholic faithful hardly being immune to changing fashions, the church perceives these new approaches to marking the end of our lives as a threat. But if they are worried about greater freedom and a more individualistic approach to death and burial, scattering of ashes is old news.

Complete Article HERE!

Many Christian pastors offer bad theology about death, suffering

By 

When Mindy Corporon was 15 years old her friend Kyle, then 16, died in a car wreck.

“This was a devastating moment in my young life and our family,” says Corporon. “My dad, being the family doctor, pronounced him dead … I asked my pastor a few weeks later why this happened. He told me it was God’s will. I struggled for years trying to understand how God would want to have killed Kyle. As an adult, I came to learn that God gave man free will and although there are plans for us in God’s eyes, we disappoint him often with the poor choices we make. God didn’t kill Kyle. God doesn’t want babies to die of illness or starvation or gunshots.”001

Corporon, a member of a United Methodist Church, can say this now after her own son and father were murdered by a neo-Nazi white supremacist at the Jewish Community Center in suburban Kansas City on Palm Sunday of 2014. That very night, she spoke to a large community prayer vigil at which I also was a speaker, and she told the people there not to blame God for this catastrophe.

The hard truth is that Corporon’s pastor in her childhood offered her terrible theology. The harder truth is that many Christian pastors — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and others — sometimes continue to offer bad theology about suffering, pain and death. Beyond that, those of us who are not clergy frequently contribute to the problem by mouthing theological inanities.

“God helps those who help themselves,” we tell each other, using words not found in the biblical witness. In fact, those words are almost exactly the opposite of what Christianity teaches, which is that God helps those who can’t help themselves. God has what we’ve come to call a preferential option for the poor.

As Pope Francis has been reminding the world since he was elected, God’s heart breaks and God weeps over the needy, the poor, the sick, the helpless. And what breaks God’s heart surely should break ours.

The bogus theology that Mindy Corporon got dumped on her as a teenager was a pastor’s effort to answer what theologians call the terribly difficult question of theodicy: If God is good and all powerful, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

christian deathThere is no fully satisfying, exhaustive answer to that question. In fact, the theodicy question is the open wound of religion, and all theodicies finally fail. But if the question has no thorough answer, that doesn’t mean there can be no response to it.

The Christian response can be this: I don’t know why evil and suffering exist, but I will represent Christ to those who are suffering. I will mediate the grace of God to those in pain. I will be a channel of God’s love to those for whom life has turned dark and hopeless.

Mindy Corporon has chosen to respond in exactly that way generous, loving way even though she and her family are among those grieving because of the Palm Sunday murders of her son, father and another woman (all Christians, though the shooter said he was trying to kill Jews).

Mindy has created a movement to promote love and kindness. She calls it “Seven Days: Make a Ripple, Change the World,” and again this year she and her supporters have designed a series of activities in April to promote the uplifting values needed to stand against the hate that killed three people whom the killer thought were Jews.

A friend who used to be a Lutheran pastor but now is Catholic once gave a sermon quoting a man who said the accidental death of his grandson was God’s will. But someone confronted him about that, telling him not to blame God for the devil’s work.

Whatever you believe about the devil, that’s good advice — advice Mindy Corporon understands deeply.

Complete Article HERE!

The ministry of burying the dead

By Heidi Schlumpf

pallbearers When I heard that my friend Linh’s father had passed away, I knew I wanted to go to the funeral. Her father, who had fled Vietnam with his family during the war, had been especially kind and welcoming to our son, who was adopted from Vietnam. He had made us feel like family.

The funeral Mass was at his home parish, which was about an hour from my home. The pastor from that church, as well as from the parishes that are the base for Vietnamese Catholics in Chicago and from the local Divine Word Missionary community, concelebrated. There must have been almost a dozen of them. Parishioners from his parish and beyond were there too, as well as almost 100 family members, who wore traditional white headbands. The church was packed.

Since the liturgy was in Vietnamese, the only responses I could join in on were “Amen” and “Alleluia.” But the eulogy by the youngest son was in English and brought tears to my eyes. I was sad for my friend, for her widowed mother and for her children who had lost a grandpa.

At the end of the funeral, we were invited to the cemetery for the graveside service, to be followed by a luncheon. I assumed it was only for close relatives, but everyone else seemed to be going, so I got the “Funeral” sticker for my car and joined the procession.

At graveside, there were more prayers and songs — again in Vietnamese. Then the massive floral arrangements, which had been brought from the church, were dismantled, and the flowers distributed to people in the crowd.

The gravediggers were called to lower the casket into the ground. Next, they backed up a nearby crane and lowered a cement slab over the casket. We all waited patiently. Then we all threw our flowers into the casket-sized hole in the ground. While everyone stayed and chatted, visiting nearby graves, Linh’s 6-year-old daughter tossed every last flower into her grandfather’s grave.

What a powerful and moving example of “burying the dead.”

Burying the dead seems like the lonely stepchild of the corporal works of mercy. The others — feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick and imprisoned — are embraced by Catholics committed to social justice, with entire ministries and even nonprofit organizations created to try to meet those needs.

But burying the dead? That ministry is usually left to priests, close friends and relatives, and the dedicated parishioners (often retired women) who sing at funerals or serve post-funeral luncheons in church basements.

Catholics of all ages — especially social-justice-minded ones — should remember that burying the dead is just as important as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Being part of a proper burial not only maintains the deceased person’s human dignity and is a service to the survivors, it also benefits the church and broader culture by offering ritual and meaning when people need it most.

Although burial of human remains in the ground may have begun as an efficient way to dispose of decomposing bodies, it acquired ritualistic and religious significance early on. For Catholics, burial of the deceased is not only a sign of respect but connected to our belief in the resurrection of the body. Burial is still preferred to cremation, which is now allowed by the church, “unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Canon 1176).

To be clear, I’m not just arguing for comforting the sorrowful — a related spiritual work of mercy — although certainly Catholics should consider spending time with widows or widowers, praying for those affected by the death of a family member, or perhaps volunteering at a hospice or hospital.

No, I mean actually attending wakes and funerals, including burial and graveside services. I know funerals are often held during business hours on weekdays, inconvenient for working people, but what could mean more to a family than their faith community accompanying their loved one to a final resting place?

The other six corporal works of mercy are taken directly from Matthew 25 (“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters …”), the parable of God’s judgment. Burying the dead was added to make the list a spiritually significant seven. The admonition to bury the dead comes from the Old Testament Book of Tobit, whose namesake is exiled for his righteous work of burying the dead, especially criminals.

Like Tobit, we should help bury not only our own deceased friends and family members, but others as well. This could include attending funerals of those in our community whom we did not know well in life, or even assisting, financially or practically, organizations that help low-income folks with funeral expenses (which today run in the thousands of dollars).

In our death-avoidant culture, it’s understandable that attending funerals is something many prefer to avoid. But I can’t think of anything more merciful than helping to ritualize the end of a life. My friend’s Vietnamese community has it right. Complete Article HERE!

The History of Christian Death Rites

by FREDERICK S. PAXTON

In the world in which Christianity emerged, death was a private affair. Except when struck down on the battlefield or by accident, people died in the company of family and friends. There were no physicians or religious personnel present. Ancient physicians generally removed themselves when cases became hopeless, and priests and priestesses served their gods rather than ordinary people. Contact with a corpse caused ritual impurity and hence ritual activity underworld ferrymanaround the deathbed was minimal. A relative might bestow a final kiss or attempt to catch a dying person’s last breath. The living closed the eyes and mouth of the deceased, perhaps placing a coin for the underworld ferryman on the tongue or eyelids. They then washed the corpse, anointed it with scented oil and herbs, and dressed it, sometimes in clothing befitting the social status of the deceased, sometimes in a shroud. A procession accompanied the body to the necropolis outside the city walls. There it was laid to rest, or cremated and given an urn burial, in a family plot that often contained a structure to house the dead. Upon returning from the funeral, the family purified themselves and the house through rituals of fire and water.

Beyond such more or less shared features, funeral rites, as well as forms of burial and commemoration, varied as much as the people and the ecology of the region in which Christianity developed and spread. Cremation was the most common mode of disposal in the Roman Empire, but older patterns of corpse burial persisted in many areas, especially in Egypt and the Middle East. Christianity arose among Jews, who buried their dead, and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were its defining events. Although Christians practiced inhumation (corpse burial) from the earliest times, they were not, as often assumed, responsible for the gradual disappearance of cremation in the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries, for common practice was already changing before Christianity became a major cultural force. However, Christianity was, in this case, in sync with wider patterns of cultural change. Hope ofsalvation and attention to the fate of the body and the soul after death were more or less common features of all the major religious movements of the age, including the Hellenistic mysteries, Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, Manichaeanism, and Mahayana Buddhism, which was preached as far west as Alexandria.

Early Christian Responses to Death and Dying

In spite of the centrality of death in the theology and spiritual anthropology of early Christians, they were slow to develop specifically Christian responses to death and dying. The most immediate change was that Christians handled the bodies of the dead without fear of pollution. The purification of baptism was permanent, unless marred by mortal sin, and the corpse of a Christian prefigured the transformed body that would be resurrected into eternal life at the end of time. The Christian living had less need than their neighbors to appease their dead, who were themselves less likely to return as unhappy ghosts. Non-Christians noted the joyous mood at Christian funerals and the ease of the participants in the presence of the dead. They observed how Christians gave decent burials to even the poorest of the poor. Normal Roman practice was to dump them in large pits away from the well-kept family tombs lining the roads outside the city walls.

catacombs

The span of a Christian biography stretched from death and rebirth in baptism, to what was called the “second death,” to final resurrection. In a sense, then, baptism was the first Christian death ritual. In the fourth century Bishop Ambrose of Milan (374–397) taught that the baptismal font was like a tomb because baptism was a ritual of death and resurrection. Bishop Ambrose also urged baptized Christians to look forward to death with joy, for physical death was just a way station on the road to paradise. Some of his younger contemporaries, like Augustine of Hippo, held a different view. Baptism did not guarantee salvation, preached Augustine; only God could do that. The proper response to death ought to be fear—of both human sinfulness and God’s inscrutable judgment.

This more anxious attitude toward death demanded a pastoral response from the clergy, which came in the form of communion as viaticum (provisions for a journey), originally granted to penitents by the first ecumenical council at Nicea (325), and extended to all Christians in the fifth and sixth centuries. There is, however, evidence that another type of deathbed communion was regularly practiced as early as the fourth century, if not before. The psalms, prayers, and symbolic representations in the old Roman death ritual discussed by the historian Frederick Paxton are in perfect accord with the triumphant theology of Ambrose of Milan and the Imperial Church. The rite does not refer to deathbed communion as viaticum, but as “a defender and advocate at the resurrection of the just” (Paxton 1990, p. 39). Nor does it present the bread and wine as provisions for the soul’s journey to the otherworld, but as a sign of its membership in the community of the saved, to be rendered at the last judgment. Thanks, in part, to the preservation and transmission of this Roman ritual, the Augustinian point of view did not sweep all before it and older patterns of triumphant death persisted.

However difficult the contemplation (or moment) of death became, the living continually invented new ways of aiding the passage of souls and maintaining community with the dead. In one of the most important developments of the age, Christians began to revere the remains of those who had suffered martyrdom under Roman persecution. As Peter Brown has shown, the rise of the cult of the saints is a precise measure of the changing relationship between the living and the dead in late antiquity and the early medieval West. The saints formed a special group, present to both the living and the dead and mediating between and among them. The faithful looked to them as friends and patrons, and as advocates at earthly and heavenly courts. Moreover, the shrines of the saints brought

viaticum

people to live and worship in the cemeteries outside the city walls. Eventually, the dead even appeared inside the walls, first as saints’ relics, and then in the bodies of those who wished to be buried near them. Ancient prohibitions against intramural burials slowly lost their force. In the second half of the first millennium, graves began to cluster around both urban and rural churches. Essentiallycomplete by the year 1000, this process configured the landscape of Western Christendom in ways that survive until the present day. The living and the dead formed a single community and shared a common space. The dead, as Patrick Geary has put it, became simply another “age group” in medieval society.

Emergence of a Completely Developed Death Ritual in the Medieval Latin Church

However close the living and dead might be, it was still necessary to pass from one group to the other, and early medieval Christians were no less inventive in facilitating that passage. The centuries from 500 to 1000 saw the emergence of a fully developed ritual process around death, burial, and the incorporation of souls into the otherworld that became a standard for Christian Europeans until the Reformation, and for Catholics until the very near present. The multitude of Christian kingdoms that emerged in the West as the Roman Empire declined fostered the development of local churches. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, these churches developed distinctive ritual responses to death and dying. In southern Gaul, Bishop Caesarius of Arles (503–543) urged the sick to seek ritual anointing from priests rather than magicians and folk healers and authored some of the most enduring of the prayers that accompanied death and burial in medieval Christianity. Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) first promoted the practice of offering the mass as an aid to souls in the afterlife, thus establishing the basis for a system of suffrages for the dead. In seventh-century Spain, the Visigothic Church developed an elaborate rite of deathbed penance. This ritual, which purified and transformed the body and soul of the dying, was so powerful that anyone who subsequently recovered was required to retire into a monastery for life. Under the influence of Mosaic law, Irish priests avoided contact with corpses. Perhaps as a consequence, they transformed the practice of anointing the sick into a rite of preparation for death, laying the groundwork for the sacrament of extreme unction. In the eighth century, Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionary monks began to contract with one another for prayers and masses after death.

All of these developments came into contact in the later eighth and ninth centuries under the Carolingian kings and emperors, especially Charlemagne (769–814), but also his father Pepin and his son Louis. Together they unified western Europe more

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successfully around shared rituals than common political structures. The rhetoric of their reforms favored Roman traditions, and they succeeded in making the Mass and certain elements of clerical and monastic culture, like chant, conform to Roman practice whether real or imagined. When it came to death and dying, however, Rome provided only one piece of the Carolingian ritual synthesis: the old Roman death ritual. Whether or not it was in use in Rome at the time, its triumphant psalmody and salvation theology struck a chord in a church supported by powerful and pious men who saw themselves as heirs to the kings of Israel and the Christian emperors of Rome. Other elements of their rituals had other sources. Carolingian rituals were deeply penitential, not just because of Augustine, but also because, in the rough-and-tumble world of the eighth and ninth centuries, even monks and priests were anxious about making it into heaven. Although reformers, following Caesarius of Arles, promoted the anointing of the sick on the grounds that there was no scriptural basis for anointing the dying, deathbed anointing came into general use, often via Irish texts and traditions. Carolingian rituals also drew liberally on the prayers of Caesarius of Arles and other fathers of the old Gallican and Visigothic churches.

The ritual experts of the Carolingian age did not just adapt older rites and provide a setting for their synthesis, however; they made their own contributions as well. In his classic 1908 study on ritual, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep was surprised by the lack of elaboration of the first phase of death rites in the ethnographic reports he studied. People generally ritualized burial and commemoration, but gave little attention to the dying. Unlike other rites of passage, few rituals prepared people for death. Familiarity with European Christian traditions may be the source of van Gennep’s surprise, for well-developed preliminal rites are one of their most characteristic features. Around the year 800 certain clerical communities introduced a ritual for the death agony. To aid the dying through the struggle of the soul’s exit from the body, the community chanted the names of the denizens of paradise. Rhythmically calling on the Trinity, Mary, the angels, the prophets and patriarchs, the martyrs and confessors, and all living holy men and women, they wove a web of sung prayer to aid the soul’s passing. This practice quickly became part of a common tradition that also included rites of penance, absolution, anointing, and communion, each of which helped cut the ties that bound the dying to this world, ritually preparing them for entry into paradise.

LazarusLike most human groups, Christians had always used rites of transition to allay the dangers of the liminal period after death before the corpse was safely buried and the soul set on its journey to the otherworld. The same was true of post-liminal rites of incorporation, which accompanied the body into the earth, the soul into the otherworld, and the mourners back into normal society. But medieval Christians placed the ritual commemoration of the dead at the very center of social life. Between 760 and 762, a group of churchmen at the Carolingian royal villa of Attigny committed themselves to mutual commemoration after death. Not long afterward, monastic congregations began to make similar arrangements with other houses and with members of secular society. They also began to record the names of participants in books, which grew to include as many as 40,000 entries. When alms for the poor were added to the psalms and masses sung for the dead, the final piece was in place in a complex system of exchange that became one of the fundamental features of medieval Latin Christendom. Cloistered men and women, themselves “dead to this world,” mediated these exchanges. They accepted gifts to the poor (among whom they included themselves) in exchange for prayers for the souls of the givers and their dead relatives. They may have acted more out of anxiety than out of confidence in the face of death, as the scholar Arno Borst has argued, but whatever their motivations, their actions, like the actions of the saints, helped bind together the community of the living and the dead.

The Carolingian reformers hoped to create community through shared ritual, but communities shaped ritual as much as ritual shaped communities, and the synthesis that resulted from their activities reflected not just their official stance but all the myriad traditions of the local churches that flowed into their vast realm. By the end of the ninth century a ritual process had emerged that blended the triumphant psalmody of the old Roman rites with the concern for penance and purification of the early medieval world. A rite of passage that coordinated and accompanied every stage of the transition from this community to the next, it perfectly complemented the social and architectural landscape. Taken up by the reform movements of the tenth and eleventh centuries, this ritual complex reached its most developed form at the Burgundian monastery of Cluny. At Cluny, the desire to have the whole community present at the death of each of its members was so great that infirmary servants were specially trained to recognize the signs of approaching death.

The Modern Ageextreme-unction

Christian death rituals changed in the transition to modernity, historians like Philippe Ariès and David Stannard have detailed in their various works. But while Protestants stripped away many of their characteristic features, Catholics kept them essentially the same, at least until the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Like the Carolingian reformers, the fathers of Vatican II moved to restrict ritual anointing to the sick, but they may be no more successful in the long run, for the symbolic power of anointing as a rite of preparation for death seems hard to resist. And while the secularization of society since the 1700s has eroded the influence of Christian death rites in Western culture, nothing has quite taken their place. Modern science and medicine have taught humankind a great deal about death, and about how to treat the sick and the dying, but they have been unable to give death the kind of meaning that it had for medieval Christians. For many people living in the twenty-first century death is a wall against which the self is obliterated. For medieval Christians it was a membrane linking two communities and two worlds. In particular, Christian rites of preparation for death offered the dying the solace of ritual and community at the most difficult moment in their lives.

Reconnecting with the Past

The Chalice of ReposeThe Chalice of Repose Project at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana, is applying ancient knowledge to twenty-first-century end-of-life care. Inspired in part by the medieval death rituals of Cluny, the Chalice Project trains professional music thanatologists to serve the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the dying with sung prayer. With harp and voice, these “contemplative musicians” ease the pain of death with sacred music—for the dying, but also for their families and friends and for the nurses and doctors who care for them. While anchored in the Catholic tradition, music thanatologists seek to make each death a blessed event regardless of the religious background of the dying person. Working with palliative physicians and nurses, they offer prescriptive music as an alternative therapy in end-of-life care. The Chalice of Repose is a model of how the past can infuse the present with new possibilities.

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