In the Face of Death: A Ritual for Those Present at the Moment of Dying

The Diocese of Speyer, Germany, has created a brief ritual for those accompanying the dying and present at the moment of death.  Different from the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, this blessing ritual (Sterbesegen) may be used by anybody, lay or ordained. For more information, click here.

The blessing ritual can be prayed by family, friends, parishioners, or chaplains who accompany the dying.  It can easily be used in ecumenical contexts also, for example in hospitals or hospice care settings.  Requests for such a new ritual came from hospital chaplains in the diocese of Speyer, who had expressed the need to mark, in a prayerful way, the moment of the dying of a person in their care.  The idea was not entirely new. The German diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart had produced a similar Sterbesegen five years ago.

The ritual is simple.  It begins with the sign of the cross, and an introductory sentence, then prayerful silence.  The Kyrie may be prayed, with particular invocations suited to the moment of death.  A prayer follows.  The reading of Scripture then precedes the actual blessing itself, given to the dying person.  This blessing – a text is provided – should be accompanied by suitable signs, such as holy water, and – if appropriate — the sign of the cross on the forehead of the dying person by all who are present.  The Our Father and a concluding blessing round up this short ritual.  A Marian prayer or hymn may be added.

The ritual is authorized for use in the Diocese of Speyer.  A small visually-appealing printed version is available.

For me, these are important steps in the direction of reclaiming the ritual importance of the moment of dying.  Even if one does not go as far as wishing for a priest to intone Elgar’s dramatic version of the “Proficiscere” based on John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius – “Go Forth upon Thy Journey, Christian Soul” – speaking blessing and assurance of God’s presence to a person at the moment of their death surely is important.  And since many of us will lack the capacity to speak wisely and deeply into that moment, a ritual like the Sterbesegen of the Diocese of Speyer is a welcome resource.

I wonder: are there diocesan, approved resources like that in the English-speaking world?

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21 comments

  1. I didn’t realize the traditional Catholic prayers of commendation for the dying and at the moment of death were restricted to being led by clergy. While they certainly would ideally be led by clergy present, there’s nothing in them that would prevent them from being offered in the absence of clergy. I offered them with my father and brother as my mother was being taken off feeding tubes that were flooding her body, and they were of great comfort, and I’ve encouraged others who are interested to become more familiar with them. They are among the most beautiful prayers in the Church’s treasury of prayers. (For example, see the Prayer of Commendation and Prayers After Death sections at this link: http://www.ibreviary.com/m/preghiere.php?tipo=Rito&id=371)

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:

      “I didn’t realize the traditional Catholic prayers of commendation for the dying and at the moment of death were restricted to being led by clergy. ”

      Right – they’re not (cf #213 of “Pastoral Care of the Sick”).

      I’m grateful to Karl for this reference to the rite of commendation for the dying. It is Chapter 6 in the book I just referenced. The decree at the front of the book indicates that the book is the “vernacular editio typica of the Ordo Unctionis Informorum eorumque pastoralis curae for the dioceses of the United States of America.” I’ve found that particular rite useful once or twice. But perhaps it’s not widely used by those in hospital, hospice and similar ministries? I don’t have a sense of whether or not it’s even widely known. I assume it’s also been translated into German?

      I needed to rely on Google Translate to get the gist of what the diocese of Speyer has promulgated. It seems quite fitting, as well as simpler than the rite for Commendation of the Dying. Still, is it not a case of reinventing the wheel?

  2. PS: I will here put in a plug for something for everyone to include in their daily prayers: to pray for those who are dying, those who have lost their will to live, and those who will die today or in the coming days, that they may be blessed with a holy, happy and provided-for death in the full embrace of God’s love.

    It’s the great journey we shall each of us make some day, and the great leveller. Daily intercession at the very least reminds us of that, and is a work of mercy.

  3. Well, I wish I’d had this. I was at the bedside when my mother didn’t take her next breath. I prayed a rosary around her through tears after the others left, and that did help.

  4. The Rosary used to be the all-purpose prayer for moments of death and dying, and its long familiarity was a comfort. It required no books, and even if you had no beads, you still had ten fingers. The Rosary does not function in the same way now, and we need new rituals for end-of-life and for mourning.
    One of our problems, though, is that the variety of ritual possibilities that once seemed such a liberation from pre-conciliar rigidity has now become counter-productive. There is so much variety that nothing is familiar, especially to those who are not frequent participants in church rituals. Even the official rites offer many alternatives. But ritual is based on repetition. As one of my old teachers remarked, No-one ever said, “Let’s not sing Happy Birthday this year, we sang that one last time.”
    We need a Catholic Kaddish. We need ritual(s), not dependent on a priest, for the sickbed and the deathbed and the graveside (and for other great moments of life, too) that could become as indispensable as “Happy Birthday” at a birthday — with a bit more transcendent content, of course.
    It is very difficult to create a ritual by decree, but perhaps we have to start by trying to agree on some core practices that might eventually become familiar and memorable by repetition and long association with particular events. We would have to give up something of our tendency to invention and variation. Probably we would have to start with some of the more beautiful, eloquent, and popular parts of existing tradition, maybe the Proficiscere, In Paradisum, and the like. Otherwise we will continue have families and congregations that are increasingly unable to engage in ritual activity, or to sing any hymn, or to recite any prayer beyond the Our Father. IMHO.

    1. @Paul Chandler:
      Indeed. If you’ve been, um, blessed enough to grieve and accompany the grieving repeatedly, one may learn the iconic value of ritual words that do not try to be authentic and spontaneous. Iconic in the sense of being aural windows (to mix sense dimensions) to a deeper reality.

      Don’t count out the Rosary. I’ve been around Catholics who’ve not been in a church in decades, but readily find the way to ride the Rosary bike (well, not the Apostles Creed) without much training wheels. For clergy and other ministers who might wonder that the Rosary lacks purchase, instead treat it as an opportunity to give a gift.

  5. As a National Assn of Catholic Chaplains Board Certified Chaplain with an M.Div., the USCCB Book of Blessings states that lay people are to make the Sign of the Cross on the person’s forehead during a blessing. And a lay person may do a wake or graveside service, if a priest or Deacon is not available. The ritual is printed in the Book of Funerals…

    And i compose commendations based on the particular story of those i accompany. But at wakes, i always use a psalmody or call and response in the Protestant traditions, because a well known repetitive phrase is all the prayer that a deeply mourning family can offer.

  6. Even so, the dying person does not have her confession heard, receive the Apostolic Pardon, and partake in the viaticum in the mentioned ritual. I am wary of new rituals that downplay sin and not proclaim grace in its sacramental glory. The aforementioned ritual should be a very last resort. A priest should always be called, if possible, to hear the confession and impart the Pardon. Any lay ritual cannot give the assurance of grace, even if priests are few and far between or are unwilling to say the Last Rites out of lassitude or perceived inadequacy of time (oh, I have to say Mass now, isn’t that more important?) Mass can wait a few minutes.

    I am tired of Catholics settling for lay pseudo-liturgies just because of priest shortages in some places. Make triply sure that a priest will be there in periculo mortis, even if those close to the dying must plan for Last Rites months before the moment of death.

    Were I to be a priest, I would be most honored to be a hospital chaplain exclusively. I could hear confessions before the administration of Communion, which laypersons cannot do. And, with greatest thankfulness, I would be overjoyed to give the Last Rites. I would need to wear sneakers to make sure I get to the bedside in time 😉 And yes, latine if only for the Pardon, anointing, and viaticum.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      Jordan

      You are right, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. My mother had received the sacraments in the hospital three days earlier just before she lapsed into a semi-coma, though unfortunately the chaplain responded to my father’s request for her to be given the Apostolic Pardon with “we don’t do that any more”, which was perhaps true for that chaplain but definitely not true for the Church. (Memo to priests: if you don’t know it, please learn it and offer it without being asked.)

    1. @Mike Burns:
      Mike Burns – many thanks for that URL to the USCCB site. Although that page doesn’t seem to include an acknowledgement, virtually all of the passages and prayers listed there are drawn from the Commendation of the Dying that has been mentioned in previous comments. In fact, if a person was to draw one selection from each of the sections on that website, in the order given, one would basically have prayed the entire liturgy (it seems the only missing element on the site is a litany of the saints).

  7. Fritz Bauerschmidt : When my father-in-law was dying we prayed the Proficiscere anima christiana (in English, of course) at his bedside.

    I did exactly the same when my Anglican mother in law died.
    They are powerful words. If they were said for me I wouldn’t grumble.

  8. I have been with families at the hour of death. If the notion that a priest or cleric is the only one to be able to say a prayer at that time, then somehow the Church has to find a way to supply more because while the number of priests/ordained ministers of the Roman Catholic Rite has diminished, the number of people dying has remained constant.

    The language of “authorized for use” again promotes the control of prayer experiences to a powerhouse or mothership mentality that when, after sitting with a family for hours, I suggest we pray a blessing. A number of times the question has been asked “Are you sure you can do that?”

    I very much appreciate the Diocese of Spreyer for this prayer aide. It is a gift. Can the language of “authorized for use” or “diocesan approved resource” lighten up so that these prayers can be seen as sincere resource for families in need rather than “extreme unction” lite?

    I will promote this prayer aide to parishioners as a great resource.

    1. @Ed Nash:

      “I have been with families at the hour of death. If the notion that a priest or cleric is the only one to be able to say a prayer at that time, then somehow the Church has to find a way to supply more because while the number of priests/ordained ministers of the Roman Catholic Rite has diminished, the number of people dying has remained constant.”

      Right. You don’t need to be a cleric to pray, at any time.

      The comparison that Teresa Berger made in the original post was between Speyer’s new ritual and and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. One *does* need to be a priest to administer the latter. However, as some of these comments have drawn out, the church’s treasury of prayers at this moment is as good deal richer than that sacrament. The Commendation of the Dying can be led by a cleric if one happens to be present, but also can be led by a layperson in the (sadly increasing) instances in which a cleric cannot be present.

      Beyond the questions of who is authorized to pray certain prayers, it is helpful at a moment of crisis to have available an already-thought-through-and-composed prayer. And there is something about ritual that seems fitting and comforting at such a moment. Personally I’m glad that the church has made these rituals available to us.

      FWIW – it’s also been my experience that, at that moment, a lot of people do what a cleric present. As noted, it’s not always possible. But it’s what a lot of folks seem to want.

  9. Karl Liam Saur : @Jordan Zarembo: Jordan You are right, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. My mother had received the sacraments in the hospital three days earlier just before she lapsed into a semi-coma, though unfortunately the chaplain responded to my father’s request for her to be given the Apostolic Pardon with “we don’t do that any more”, which was perhaps true for that chaplain but definitely not true for the Church. (Memo to priests: if you don’t know it, please learn it and offer it without being asked.)

    The “Apostolic Pardon” is well-concealed in my copy of Pastoral Care of the Sick. It is #201B in the rite for “Viaticum outside Mass.” I have marked it with a fold of tape for ease of reference.

    1. @Michael Slusser:
      Bless you. I realize that I had misreported the words of the chaplain here, having fused it to another situation – this chaplain, in his refusal (and he did refuse), offered my father a vaguer form of “we’ve done all that we can do” – still, he’s a hospital chaplain who refused a specific legitimate request, which still rather boggles me.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        The chaplain may have been confused by the fact that the Apostolic Pardon” doesn’t appear in the rite for Anointing of the Sick but in that for Viaticum (which he probably seldom uses in a hospital setting), and then only the celebration of Viaticum outside of Mass has the formal wording. Viaticum within Mass (whenever that might occur) has only a newer substitute text. The chaplain may simply never have seen the Apostolic Pardon in his ministry and concluded “we don’t do that any more.”.

  10. #16 Jim:

    Agreed. I do know that for as many times as I have sat with a family at the hour of death, only one remembers my words, most are thankful for a the permission to “ritually” trace the Cross on the forehead, and all remember I was there with them.

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