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How to mark the last moments of a life

At Church Life Journal, Elaine Stratton Hild recalled the medieval rites around dying. At one Austrian monastery, not untypical of the 14th century, “The leader of the community, the prior, came to the brother’s sickbed to hear his confession.

The others gathered and processed to the infirmary with oil for anointing, incense, the Communion Host, a cross, and candles. They assembled in the room, singing antiphons and psalms as their sick brother was anointed. The gathered brothers sang songs of petition, using words from the Gospels: ‘Lord, come down to heal my son before he dies,’ and songs of hope: ‘Jesus said to him, Go, your son lives.’”

After the sacrament of Anointing, Hild explained, “the brothers arranged a schedule so that at least one person remained always at his bedside.” If the monk seemed very close to death, the whole community would gather to sing a lengthy litany.

It was a time when music, ritual, community and spirituality were part of dying. Perhaps today we need “a greater place for the non-physical needs of the dying person, a greater place for community, and a greater place for beauty.”

Humility calls us to acknowledge others

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