A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about a brief ritual, created by the Diocese of Speyer, Germany, 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) could be used by anybody, lay or ordained. Today, I write to draw your attention to another resource, quite different from the above-mentioned blessing ritual, yet equally – if not more – compelling: its language is English!
I first encountered the ideas behind Peace at the Last: Visitation with the Dying (Augsburg Fortress 2016) when a pastoral team from Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Chelan, WA, introduced their ministry of accompaniment of the dying at the Yale ISM Congregations Project a few years ago. The team included a musician who was composing music for the developing liturgy and a visual artist who created watercolor images to be included in the book.
Rooted in the deep experience of accompanying the dying in this one congregation, the now published ritual book includes some precious features. Among these is to gather the Church Visitation Group in the sanctuary first, by the font, for a brief prayer, reading, and blessing. Those appointed to actually visit then follow a simple ritual in the room of the dying person of greeting, prayer, song, and psalms. Ample room is given to meditative silence, as needed. Communion may be celebrated. Toward the end, there is a ritual moment described as “sending” that includes making the sign of the cross (oil may be used) on the forehead, ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands, and feet of the dying. It is essentially a ritual permission to “let go and let God” (my words). For the signing of the shoulders, for example, the text suggests these words to be spoken to the dying person as they are signed:
“Receive the cross on your shoulders,
that you may lay down the yoke you have borne
and put your burdens to rest.”
A simple, sung Nunc Dimittis in English and a concluding prayer bring the ritual to a close.
There are many things I appreciate about this ritual. First is the commitment to stark truth-telling: There is no hiding the fact here that someone is dying. The second is the depth of ecclesial accompaniment: Someone is dying, and the church – its people, prayers, songs, and images – are there, drawing close in accompaniment at this crucial point in a person’s life. Note that this is not a visit by the minister alone, or a gathering of the family, but a visitation by a small group of parishioners. Third, and most importantly, there is a strong, compelling Christian faith here: in a God who created us and at the end of our lives calls us into God’s own eternal presence.
And for those who do not envision themselves as part of such a ministry of visiting the dying, I encourage you to get this beautiful little book nevertheless. All of us, after all, will be in the role of “the dying one” someday, and whatever a convincing ars moriendi might look like in our day (we desperately need one), Peace at the Last is an excellent start.