Question 62:

What is the order of rites that have to be carried out when someone dies?


Answer: The Church does not prescribe precisely and in legally binding detail how a dying person or a dead body are to be treated. In this area too, the custom of Christians in different parts of the world recognizes much of the good that is alive in the various cultures and rites. However, the Church does have official and comprehensive teaching on ethical questions which arise in the context of dying and death, especially in our modern societies, e.g. in its catechisms. Its ritual, laid down in an official Church book focusing especially on pastoral situations, with liturgical regulations and readings from the Holy Scriptures, as well as prayers, determines how fellow Christians are to assist the dying and which rites are to be carried out with and for the dying. The Church also lays down the religious funeral rites.

We quote a few items from these teachings and rites (selected from the: “Katholischer Erwachsenen Katechismus. 2. Band. Leben aus dem Glauben“. Freiburg, 1995, p. 302-316 and from the Kleines Rituale für die Diözesen des deutschen Sprachbereichs. Freiburg 1980).

Dignity of the dying and piety vis-á-vis the body of a dead person

Illnesses and dying are not just a call on us living to be aware of death and to practice the concept of Christian dying, but they also confront us with ethical problems. Christians know they are responsible for the protection of life, the promotion of healing, the treatment and healing of illness, and journeying alongside the dying, helping them as much as possible. This is also the aim for all doctors and carers whose actions are primarily guided to achieve the comprehensive wellbeing of the sick person. For Christians, serving the ill and the dying has always been an "act of compassion. It is a fundamental principle that human life is sacrosanct and that everyone has a right to a humane death. In consequence, there is the duty to assist the sick and the dying in the last phase of their lives with their dying, as well as the duty not to end human life. Assisted dying and accompanied dying will make dying easier and will help the dying person to die his own death. It would therefore be possible to speak of assisted living for the dying. There can be no right to be killed, but, especially in view the some excessively intensive therapies, there is a right to a humane death.

Death and funerals are part of life. They are the end of our earthly pilgrimage. From very early on, growing out of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead, there has been a growing awareness in the church that the dead are to be remembered and the dead body is to be revered. This aspect of Christian piety meant that a Christian burial became the norm in society. Because people used to die largely at home, the dead stayed there until the liturgical celebration of consecration and burial. This also enabled the mourners to be with the dead person for a little longer, to say their final good-byes and to deal with their sorrow each in their own way.

These days far fewer people die at home, but more frequently in hospitals and nursing homes without the presence of other members of the public. Dying and death in our non-religious society are being banished from society and are becoming anonymous.

Until 1964, Roman Catholic law prohibited the cremation of Catholics. This prohibition arose not so much from dogmatic considerations, but as a reaction to certain groups which proclaimed the cremation of dead bodies to be tantamount to denying the belief in the resurrection of the body. These days, Catholic Christians may be cremated, provided that this is not a means to explicitly denying the Christian faith.

Christians decorate the graves of their dead as a sign of remembrance and love. When the graves are blessed on Allhallows (All Souls) Day, the parishes show their connection with the dead in a special way. Death and mourning are interpreted in the light of Jesus declaration of the resurrection in which the Christian communities proclaim their hope.

Prayers for the dying

The commandment of love their neighbour compels Christians to express their relatedness with the dying brother/sister through praying with him or her for Gods grace and a trusting faith in Christ. The Ritual of the Church contains prayers, litanies, devout callings out, psalms and Bible readings for the hour of death. The aim of these prayers is mainly that the dying person, if he is still conscious, conquers his natural fear of death through faith. He shall be helped to accept this fear in the name of following the suffering and dying Christ, and to overcome it in the hope of a life in Heaven and in the resurrection of Him who overcame our death through his dying.

If the believer is to assist the dying person, even if he is no longer conscious, shall gain comfort from those prayers through which they recognize the Easter meaning of Christian death. It is often helpful to express this with visible signs, such as signing a cross on the forehead of the dying person, just as for the first time at his Baptism.

As far as possible, priests and deacons shall endeavor to accompany the dying person together with his family, and to say all the proposed prayers. Their presence signifies that Christians die within the community of the Church. If they cannot be present because of other important pastoral tasks, they should instruct the believers to be with the dying person and to pray with them.

Vigil, prayer in the house of the house of the dead person, funeral

Depending on local custom a vigil is to be held on the days between the death and the funeral, either in the house of the dead person or in church. This is generally lay-led.

Where customary, a leave-taking (wake) held before dead person is transferred to be buried. There are several options for the funeral and one of the most commonly used forms has two stations, the first station being the chapel of rest at the cemetery or the mourning hall. The second station is the grave. The individual rites, readings from Holy Scripture and prayers, are laid down in the Ritual.

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J. Prof. Dr. T. Specker,
Prof. Dr. Christian W. Troll,

Kolleg Sankt Georgen
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