by the Rt. Rev. Paul C. Hewett, SSC
Diocese of the Holy Cross

Prepare for death

“Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days; that I may be certified how long I have to live.” (Psalm 39: 5) The Fathers encouraged us often to remembrance of death as a way of quickening prayer in us, and holy fear, and dependence on God. “Prepare yourself constantly for death, casting aside all fear.” Life is short, and “here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” (Hebrews 13: 14) Pray for a holy and prepared death, in words such as these:

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered; Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness, all our days: that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favour with thee our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The first thing to do is settle down quietly in God's presence, and seek His guidance in the preparation, or the re-drafting, of a will. Some people think that by postponing their wills they are postponing their deaths. That is not the case. “The Minister is ordered, from time to time, to advise the People, whilst they are in health, to make Wills arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, and, when of ability, to leave Bequests for religious and charitable uses.”

The Biblical concept for all giving is the tithe, and tithing applies to wills. One should take ten percent off the top and give it “for religious and charitable uses.” For most of us that means our parish church, but our diocese, a seminary, a campus ministry, a religious order, a pro-life group or a charity may be factored in. And there are other ways of giving to the church through life insurance, charitable remainder trusts and other creative instruments that can bring significant tax relief.

Another aspect of preparation for death is determining whether power of attorney and/or medical power of attorney, should be delegated to someone you trust.

Finally, if you have never made your confession before, ask a priest for help in preparing for your first confession. The time to go to confession is now. Learn now the ineffable blessing of absolution. “…Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13: 11-12) Being a penitent now means that on your deathbed it will be natural for you to make your confession. You will have already threaded the needle. You will go to the Lord, confident and joyful, knowing to plead the Blood, and walk toward the Light. You will give a powerful witness to your family, and the Church, of the risen Lord. Your last words will be memorable, and edify many: words of praise and gratitude to our loving heavenly Father. It is said that St. Nicholas' last words were the Nunc dimittis , “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…” (Luke 2: 29ff) St. Catherine of Siena is said to have exclaimed, “My God, I thank thee for having creating me.” St. Therese of Lisieux said, “My God, how I love you!”

Plan the Liturgy

Now comes the matter of planning for the Liturgy, and writing out instructions for it, in consultation with your priest, so that he and you, and a family member, can keep the instructions in a file, ready-to-hand. The Liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, supplemented by the Missals and the 1940 Hymnal , is a world-class masterpiece. Use it as it stands. Introducing trendy or idiosyncratic elements sentimentalizes and trivializes the grandeur of our Liturgy. We begin, for example, with no organ prelude. There is complete silence. The first words we hear are our Lord's, from St. John's Gospel, majestically proclaimed by the priest as he leads the casket down the aisle, “I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die…”

So begins the Burial Office, which is the old Mattins for the Dead. Two things have already been assumed, and both are important. (i) That the body is present, in a closed casket, which is covered by either a pall, or, in the case of a Veteran, by an American Flag. It is necessary to leave word with your undertaker, and in your written instructions to the family, that you want your body brought into the church this one last time. If you plan to be cremated, the cremation can wait until after the Liturgy. Undertakers are happy to comply with this, but they need to be told ahead of time. If this costs a little extra, it is worth it. Because we are not gnostics, for whom the body does not matter. The body does matter. That is the witness of all of Scripture. This body is what was, from Baptism onwards, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This body is what will be raised up again at the last day. This body we now bring into church one last time, to reveal these great truths of our Faith. Your body is returned to the church, to the gathered faithful, among whom you were first baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection, so that the faithful can gather ‘round one last time and the priest can absolve your body one last time. Having your body at the Liturgy brings closure to your life in Christ on earth, and helps your loved ones face your death head-on, so that their grief, more fully drawn out now, can be more fully healed, in the Liturgy, with the living hope it proclaims.

(ii) The second assumption already made is that the Liturgy be in your parish church, if at all possible. The second choice is to have the Liturgy in another church. But your parish church is the place where, Sunday by Sunday, in the Eucharist, you knew earth to be united with heaven, and heaven with earth, in the Communion of Saints. Your parish church is where your fellow members of the Body gathered with you to receive the holy mysteries, and be revealed as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Many of our parishes use black for hangings, vestments and the pall that goes over the casket upon entrance into the church. Violet is often substituted. Both violet and black are penitential colors. We approach God in penitence for the holy progress of a soul which will probably need some further purgation and preparation for heaven. Also, black, or violet, helps people to release more of their grief. These colors have an almost shocking effect, which brings us up smartly to the harsh reality of death, and what our Lord saved us from . If black of violet are used, the whole tone of the Liturgy is penitential, and so no hymns with the word “alleluia” are used.

Using white vestments and hangings is the post-Vatican II emphasis on our Lord's resurrection, and what He saved us for . The theme is more from the book of Revelation: the saved wear robes, washed white in the Blood of the Lamb. With white, hymns with the word “alleluia” may be used, because Easter sets the tone for the Liturgy. Whether the Liturgy uses black, violet or white, there are to be no flowers on or near the Altar.

Regarding music, it is good to pick out hymns that you would like used, if there are to be hymns. As mentioned above, the color used for the Liturgy will influence the choice of hymns. If the Requiem Mass is to be sung, the organist, or Rector, or you yourself, may have an idea of what Mass setting you would like, or whether you want a choir.

The Burial Office and Mass for the Dead may never be offered on Sunday, this being the day of our Lord's Resurrection. Sunday is not a day for commemorating the dead, but the day for our living Lord.

Eulogies should only be given at a reception and never during the Liturgy. It is appropriate that the priest give a homily on our Lord's resurrection. And since the worship of the Church is offered to Almighty God, and not to the deceased, it is not appropriate to have pictures of the deceased in the front of the church. Pictures are not appropriate for the same reason eulogies are not. The focus is not on the deceased, but on God.

Should there be a Requiem Mass? Most certainly. A Requiem can be a low Mass, a Sung Mass, a Sung Mass with incense, or a Solemn High Mass. There is no better way to finish one's course on earth than to have the Lord's own Service. We are never closer to our loved ones in heaven or in purgatory than when we celebrate the Eucharist. The whole Church, militant, expectant and triumphant, sings the Sanctus together, with the angels and archangels. The Church intends the Eucharist to be celebrated at every turning point and important event in life, to reveal to us the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of passing over from death to life, through Jesus' death and resurrection.

And so, the full Liturgy for the Dead is, in order: (i) the Burial Office (pp. 324 – 332), the Requiem Mass (pp. 67 – 84 and pp. 268 – 269), (iii) the Absolution of the Body and (iv) the Service at the Grave (pp. 332 – 336)

Some other notes for the file are:

-- whether to write your obituary in advance, or to leave with your family some notes on what you would like in it.

-- the kind of visitation you wish to have, (at your home, or at the Funeral Director's)

-- where you would like to be buried, or have your ashes interred. Normally the Service at the Grave, and the burial, take place right after the Service that was held in the church. An interment of ashes may be deferred to a later time.

-- you may indicate preferences for the Psalms in the Burial Office (pp. 324 – 328) or you may want them all to be used. So too with the readings (pp. 328 – 331). Three are given, and you may indicate your preference for one of them. It is usually best if the readings are left to the clergy. At the Requiem Mass, the Epistle should be read by a sub-deacon or one of the clergy, and the Gospel read by a deacon or the priest. It is never appropriate to have readings that are not from Holy Scripture.

-- Hymns must be chosen from The Hymnal, 1940 , or from hymnals approved by the Rector. Secular and unseemly music is to be suppressed.

-- whether to have an organist (who must be paid) and a choir (which usually must be paid) and how much the choir should sing (the Psalms in the Burial Office can, for example, be chanted, as well the Ordinary of the Mass (the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) and the Propers (Introit, Gradual/Sequence Hymn, Offertory and Communion Verse).

-- whether to have incense at the Requiem Mass. Incense is always used at a Solemn High Mass, and may be used at a sung Mass. Incense is used at the Absolution of the Body, when the casket is sprinkled with holy water and censed, while saying the Lord's Prayer. After prayers for God's mercy for the deceased, the priest leads the casket out of the Church while he says, or the choir sings, the Paradisium,

“May the angels lead thee into Paradise; and the Martyrs receive thee at thy coming and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem . May the choirs of Angels receive thee, and mayest thou, with Lazarus once poor, have everlasting rest.”

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