The Anointing of The Corpses
The sudden, and very sad, death of Justice Antonin Scalia also had a strange tail in the equally strange fact, amply publicised, that the apparently cold body received the “sacrament” of the “last rites” by a priest when he arrived on the scene.
I wasn’t on the scene, but when I read the piece I thought the same as most of you did: that the servants of the farm/mansion found Scalia, basically, dead as a doornail; or, as you might also put it, too cold to have any illusion that he might still be alive. I will assume, in the following, that this was the case. If this was not the case, well, the facts have not been reported accurately.
It is a mystery to me how a priest might consider that a man who is already evidently dead might not be dead; as if life were something that might be lying hidden, somewhere, in a cold, hard corpse. My first impression is rather that the priest either only performed a generic blessing over the corpse, or else that this was another example of abuse of a sacrament because of political correctness, in order to not exclude anyone from anything on any circumstance whatsoever. I wonder how pleased Justice Scalia is in knowing that strange, macabre rites supposed to be a sacrament have been performed on his corpse what appears to be hours after his death.
Now let us assume here that the priest was right, and political correctness is right, and even old theologians who, in past times, advocated for strange distinctions about when one is really dead after he has died are right. The result of this is that…the sacrament loses every meaning.
No more necessity to provide for ourselves before we die, lest we die unprepared; no necessity anymore, because our family will provide for it until we putrefy, which means anywhere between 12/24 hours and four weeks if we are, as pretty common today, deep frozen in salmon-style until a convenient day for the funeral is available. More importantly, we can, with this reasoning, be died-in-the-wool atheists and die unrepentant, but then our ass should be saved because our relatives will provide for those last rites we have always refused to be provided unless, literally, on our cold, dead body, and everyone is happy.
All this seems madness to me, and I must question the sanity of any theologian who thinks that the “last rites” could have been performed, in case of sudden death, on a corpse until the moment putrefaction begins, because you never know. It may well be that in those old and unscientific time the rites were conditional. But nowadays we don’t do “conditional” much. Nowadays, we try to find ways to get around the sacraments.
The way I always understood it is that the main element of the sacrament of the last rites is that the person who receive the sacrament wants to do so. We know of Schubert, Beethoven, and many others that they died with the Sacraments, because they chose to receive them in their last hour. This has great value, gives a solid intent to the confession related to the rites, and gives us a great deal of security that, in these example, these two great men died at peace with the Lord. But when a macabre rite is performed over someone everyone knows dead, who did not take any decision as to whether to take the sacrament, cannot repent of anything, cannot confess anything, and is just a corpse, and which is due to merely the decision of those around him, then I frankly wonder what’s happening.
Of course, the priest will be able to perform as many prayers and benedictions over the corpse as he wants; of course, it is reasonable to assume that the man asking for a priest and then dying before the priest arrives has not waited for the arrival of the priest for his perfect contrition; of course, we do not presume that one is in deep trouble just because he could not have the Last Rites; but hey, this cannot come to the point of administering the sacrament on a corpse and then delude ourselves he has received a sacrament, and inform the press of the fact. This is, if you ask me, as stupid as the mother asking that the dead baby be now baptised, because she realises now that this might have been a wise thing to do when he was alive.
Mors omnia solvit. Death puts an end to everything. This is not only valid for legal matters (death puts an end to a marriage, say), but it also applies to our life in general. At death, like at the roulette, les jeux sont faits, rien ne va plus.
I read these Scalia episode and can’t avoid imagining a Country in which it either has become common practice – or will soon become common practice – to call a priest to give the “last rite” to nominal Christians, but heathen in everything else, who lived and died in complete disregard of the Lord, and of which the relatives think that “they will be fine” because, four and a half hours after their car accident, a priest came and performed a “sacrament” over their dead bodies.
I must disagree, and I must encourage the mother, or father, or brother in question to warn the loved relative before the accident happens. Because once one is dead the game is over already, and the matter will not change if an entire Conclave performs serial “last rites” over him.
Memento Mori. There will be no extra time.