Friday, February 19, 2016

Honoring and praying for the dead: then and now

A few of the 180 clerks that have worked for Justice Antonin Scalia lined up at the steps to the US Supreme Court. At the head, in cassock and surplice, is the late Justice's son, Father Paul Scalia of the Diocese of Arlington.

As I type this, the body of Justice Antonin Scalia lies in repose at the United States Supreme Court. I'm not generally a political blogger and it's not my intention to canonize the man here, but from what I know of him, Justice Scalia was an exemplary Catholic with a great heart and a Morean sense of humor, and was committed to a consistent interpretation of the Constitution over any political or party loyalties. I've learned at least one fascinating fact about Scalia every day this past week from articles shared by friends. For instance, on one occasion, he walked into a Catholic church that had been remodeled after Vatican II and loudly exclaimed, "where the hell is the tabernacle!?" It's still hard to believe he's gone; Scalia sat on the Court since before I was even born and will be, most likely, the highest-ranking US public official to ever have frequently attended the traditional Latin Mass for the rest of my life (indeed, a handful of traddies find it highly suspicious that one of "their own" was able to make it so far up without soiling his immortal soul in the process).

There was probably some heated debate behind closed doors between Scalia's son, Father Paul (a regular celebrant of the traditional Latin Mass), and the powers-that-be in the Archdiocese of Washington over what form of Mass the Requiem for the late Justice would take, but it was decided that it would be the Ordinary Form. Whatever Scalia's wishes might have been, it was surely determined that a Requiem in the old rite would have been just too bizarre and even embarrassing to cast before the whole nation's gaze. It could have been the most-watched Latin Mass in history since John F. Kennedy's funeral, but alas. It's a twofold shame; first, in that Catholics have near-completely abandoned the practice of praying for the dead, and second that they, like the rest of the developed world, have little concern for respecting the dead's wishes or honoring them in fitting ceremony.

The old Requiem Mass with its solemn, somber chants was the finest jewel in a crown of prayers and special rites developed by our medieval forebears to remember and pray for their deceased loved ones, even in a world where death lurked behind the corner for every man, woman, and child with no respect to age, status, or wealth. The Ordo Commendationis Animae (Order for Commending a Soul to God) began with prayers over the just-deceased person, then a procession bearing the corpse directly to the church. This was a communal event in every village, whereby even those who didn't know the deceased could join. From 1389 on, an indulgence of one hundred days was attached to joining a funeral procession on the way to the church.

There were, of course, no funeral homes in those many centuries, so bodies were cleaned and prepared on-site (perhaps in the crypt), then laid out in the chancel on a platform encompassed by a "herse" (a framework to support candles over and around the body) as the clerks or monks began Vespers from the Office of the Dead. This vigil of prayer is, as far as I know, only kept today by very devout associations such as the Knights of Columbus, who are committed to praying the Rosary on the night before any deceased member's Mass of burial.

Illustration of a herse by Gothic revivalist Augustus Welby Pugin, a "patron" of this blog.

The Office of the Dead continues the following morning with Matins and Lauds. Although these were sung chiefly by the clergy and monastics, evidence abounds that these services were held nearly and dearly by the lay faithful. Every book of hours (those prayer books, often richly illuminated, used by the more well-to-do laymen of the medieval world) contained, usually toward the end, a full order of service for the Office of the Dead. Unlike the other hours and devotions, which tended to be abbreviated forms of the ones used by the clergy, the layman's book of hours contained the whole Office of the Dead, unabridged. We can see from surviving last wills and testaments that nobles would leave very specific instructions for how these offices would be executed upon their deaths, indicating their preferences for the Placebo (the opening of the psalm Placebo Domino from Vespers) or Dirige (from Matins, Dirige Domine) just as anyone today might call for "Amazing Grace" or "On Eagle's Wings".

An illustration of the Office of the Dead from the Llangattock Hours
Even before the main funeral Mass, other Requiem Masses might be offered the day before or the same day upon receiving news of the death. A testator might have even requested one or more of his favorite (non-Requiem) Masses to be offered for his soul. Imagine, then, a priest vested in white or red to offer the votive Mass of the Holy Ghost or a deceased's patron like Saint John the Baptist, complete with Glorias and Alleluias, before then changing to black to begin the Requiem!

We come, at last, to the Requiem Mass itself: the Mass with prayers and chants dedicated entirely to the eternal rest of the deceased. The whole liturgy is directed for the departed soul: the Roman liturgy eventually even modified the Agnus Dei to end with "grant him (her, them) rest" rather than the communal "have mercy upon us". The most famous of all these chants, and the one most likely to appear in a film touching upon anything related to the danse macabre is the Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath. This sequence, at least six minutes of chanting about God as the just and terrible Judge on the last day, remains an option for Ordinary Form funerals in theory, but is so rare now that we can call it effectively suppressed. No other single aspect of the traditional Requiem was so memorable, nor so despised and vilified by liturgical authors during and after the Second Vatican Council, as the Dies Irae. The four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) have never been so out of fashion.

In the earliest stages of the Requiem Mass's development, say the seventh or eighth centuries, monks were wont to keep the practice of offering Requiems to themselves, judging the laity unworthy of having a special Mass offered just for themselves. This quickly gave way to the opposite approach; that every Christian, no matter how sinful, was entitled not just to their own Requiem, but an exsequial high Mass; a spirit of charity to the dead that lasted right up to the Reformation.

Illustration of a Requiem Mass by A.W. Pugin

At the end of the Requiem, the priest approaches the body to incense it and pray the absolutions, imploring God to spare the soul the temporal punishments earned in purgatory for sins forgiven in life. Modern Catholic funerals no longer require the presence of a body, but in the medieval world, it was essential to even have a Requiem at all. If a body couldn't be had, then a mock-up of an empty casket, called a catafalque, was erected to represent the body. This was especially needed during the Crusades and the Hundred Years' War, when men regularly died in battle many miles away from home. Even then, great efforts were made to mark exactly where a body was buried, so that years or even decades later, a family could dig it out and reinter it in their family chapel. Catafalques, likewise, were erected even for memorial Requiems for groups of persons, or for commemorating all the souls of the faithful departed on All Souls' Day.

A catafalque erected for an anniversary Requiem for King Louis XVI of France, who was beheaded during the French Revolution

Time will tell if anything remotely resembling the traditional exequies will take place for Justice Scalia at the National Shrine tomorrow. EWTN will begin broadcasting at 11am. I've read that Scalia's son, Father Paul, will preach the homily, but don't know if he will be the celebrant. In any case, I'll be watching, thinking, and praying.

Father Paul prays Psalm 129 (130), de Profundis, beside his father's casket in the Supreme Court building.


  1. Where did you get the info that the mass will be OF?

    1. The short version: a priest that a friend of mine knows was invited, and there was mention of concelebrants.

  2. The worst of all the post V2 "reforms" is the Office of the Dead in the Liturgy of the Hours. Lots of prayers for those praying, almost none for the dead.

  3. Sometimes I think that if the Vatican II reforms had never taken place, I could have remained in the Church. Taking away the Latin and the beautiful music removed much of the emotional and psychological consolation the Old Rite had for me.
    The loss of the old Requiem Mass is particularly hard on me.
    Recently I attended the funeral of a devout Catholic friend who had attained a century in age. I was shocked by the current barebones plebian congregational murmuring that passes for a Mass today. It did not feel like a funeral at all! I only hoped that my friend in Heaven had been given Virtual Reality goggles and headset as she looked down on the scene so she would hear the proper Latin liturgy and especially Dies Irae. Otherwise she might have thought her body had been coopted by some friendly protesants trying to honor her life and death!