The Anointing of The Corpses

The morning after is too late...

The morning after is too late…


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. 









Posted on February 17, 2016, in Catholicism, Conservative Catholicism, Traditional Catholicism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. The people who called the priest were not Catholic and probably know nothing of Last Rites other than what they saw in movies. The priest hasn’t said if he did any more than sigh and pray so we don’t know anything for sure.

    • Firstly I though the priest only recited some benedictions. Then I reflected the thing went out as “last Rites”, and have read no denial in the press.

  2. The reporting journo likely has no clue about last rites (or anything else).

    • Not so sure.
      As father Z also reports the Last Rites can be, very much in theory, administered until the body has started to putrefy (a dumb behaviour, if you ask me; but hey, they’re theologians…).
      The problem is that I can vividly see the day when this will become the way many “catholics” believe that the loved godless departed did receive the Last Rites…

  3. Fr Henry Davis SJ, in a standard manual from the 1950’s, writes: “Since no one knows when death supervenes in the cases of lingering sickness, after apparent death, or in sudden apparent death not due to serious accident, Extreme Unction may be given hours after apparent death until putrefaction has set in.” It is done conditionally in such cases.

  4. It makes sense to give the Sacrament conditionally if it is not too long after death as we are not sure when the soul leaves the body. It can be hard to pinpoint when “death” actually is. It is better to attempt the Sacrament and be wrong than to fail to provide it when the soul remains and it could still do some good. It is better to be cautious and supply it providing it is decent and it can be reasonably expected the person would request it.

    • The soul cannot be there is the body is dead. Also, if the man does is not there to want the sacrament, it cannot be more than a kind of benediction. The idea is that the man confesses and therefore dies in the grace of God, it’s not a magic formula washing away mortal sins from people who cannot repent of them.

      Confront Catholic encyclopedia:
      “Extreme Unction may be validly administered only to Christians who have had the use of reason and who are in danger of death from sickness”.


  5. I seem to remember when growing up that sometimes the soul does not leave the body immediately, Back in 1951 when my mother died the priest was called and it took him almost 4 hours to show up. At that time Extreme Unction was very important to the faithful.

    • At death, the soul immediately leaves the body and the judgment immediately happens.There is no “waiting room”, or state in the middle. There is no trembling waiting to know our fate. It’s instantaneous.

      From the Baltimore catechism:

      Q. 1371. When will Christ judge us?

      A. Christ will judge us immediately after our death, and on the last day.

      Q. 1372. What is the judgment called which we have to undergo immediately after death?

      A. The judgment we have to undergo immediately after death is called the Particular Judgment.

      Q. 1373. Where will the particular judgment be held?

      A. The particular judgment will be held in the place where each person dies, and the soul will go immediately to its reward or punishment.

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