ASK FATHER: How long after death can Last Rites be given?

last rites extreme unction anointing viaticum 02In the last few hours some of you have sent similar questions.


How long after death can the Sacrament of Anointing be administered?

Sometimes we say “Last Rites”, though technically Last Rites includes Penance, Anointing and Viaticum (Eucharist), and hopefully the Apostolic Pardon. We can loosely use “Last Rites” sometimes to describe simple anointing.

It seems that these questions today are prompted by a new report that the late Justice Antonin Scalia (how great was his loss!) was anointed by a priest some hours after he was discovered to have died.

The question is: Should anointing be administered several hours after death or is that too late?

Keeping in mind that sacraments can only be received by people who are alive, there are two groups of sacraments, sacraments of the living and sacraments of the dead. In this case “dead” means dead in mortal sin even though the person is drawing breath. Thus, the sacraments of the dead are Baptism and Penance. The sacraments of the living are to be received by the living, thus, Confirmation, Matrimony, Orders… Anointing. Anointing is special in that when the recipient is incapable of making a confession of sins, the sacrament can also forgive sins. However, Anointing is normally to be received in the state of grace. That generally means that the recipient has recently been absolved in sacramental confession.

So, to whom and when is the Sacrament of Anointing to be given?

The law about who receives the sacrament is clear:

Can. 1004 §1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.

And there is the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1514 “The anointing of the sick is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.”

Common points? Danger of death… sick and old age.

And… you have to be alive!

I have written extensively on the issue of sickness and danger of death elsewhere on this blog. For example HERE.  I’ll leave those aside as not pertinent.  We are dealing here with someone who is apparently dead.

That leads us back to the question of anointing people who seem already to have died. A person who is dead cannot receive a sacrament, therefore a sacrament should not be attempted to be administered.

Some might interject here that Our Lord raised Lazarus from death after three days. That is a special instance, He being GOD and all. And, the Lord’s purposeful three days delay made it clear that Lazarus was truly dead.  Corruption had set in.  Lazarus would clearly not have been a candidate for anointing.

The problem is that the Church hasn’t defined exactly when a person is dead because, frankly, we just don’t know.

We know that death occurs when the soul separates from the body definitively.

It may be that the separation occurs suddenly. It may be that the separation occurs gradually. It may be that it occurs swiftly. It may be that it occurs slowly. It could be different for one person than for another. We all have heard stories of the resuscitation of those who have died, even apparently for some length of time. It would seem that, in those cases, the soul had not left the body in a definitive way.

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Since we are Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists around here, we must consult the wisdom of our forebears!

Back in the day before many medical developments, moral theologians in their manuals wrote that in the case of apparent death, anointing could be administered conditionally. The form for the anointing is changed slightly to introduce the condition of life, that is, by adding the words, “Si vivis… if you are now living (then…)”. In this way, the integrity of the sacrament is preserved and, if it is possible that the person is alive, then hopefully she receives the effects.

Also, in the old manuals of theology, there was discussion of the point made before, about the way the soul separates from the body.

In Sabetti-Barrett I found:

Quid sacerdoti agendum sit, si an aegrotum accedat, eumque modo mortuum, ut vulgo dicitur, inveniat?

Jam age ex sententia plurimorum medicorum doctissimorum probabile est homines in omnibus ferme casibus post instans mortis, ut vulgo dicitur, seu post ultimam respirationem intus aliquandiu vivere, brevius vel diutius, juxta naturam causae quae mortem induxit. In casibus mortis ex morbis lenti progressus probabile est vitam interne perdurare aliquot momenta, sex circiter, vel, juxta quosdam peritos, unam dimidiam horam: in casibus vero mortis repentinae vita interna perdurat longuis, forte non improbabiliter, usque ad putrefactionem. Ideo si sacerdos advenerit moraliter eodem tempore, quo mors sive ex morbo ordinario sive ex accidente aliquo repentino communiter censetur ingressa, potest et, ut nobis videtur, debet sacerdos praedicta duo sacramenta conditionate conferre. Et idem censemus tenendum si in casibus aegritudinis ante dimidiam horam, et in casibus accidentis repentini ante horam ab ingressu mortis apparentis sacerdos advenerit. Quod si tamen respirationem sed ante corruptionem advenerit potest sacramenta administrare: quod autem debeat, sapientioribus relinquo decernedum.”

In a nutshell, this says that if in most cases a person dies suddenly of natural causes then there is probably still some life remaining after the last breath.  In the case of a slow death from illness it may remain for a few minutes maybe six or, according to some experts 30 minutes.  (See how the authors are divided… auctores scinduntur.)   In the case of a sudden death some life might remain longer, even perhaps to the point of putrefaction.  If a priest finds the person and he is morally certain that he is there in the time that life could still be present to some extent he can and indeed ought to anoint, but conditionally.  In the case of illness the author thinks that a half hour is the length of time that the priest has to get there after apparent death from illness and one hour in the case of sudden death.  If, after that time but before corruption sets in, he can anoint.  Whether or not he ought to the author leaves to those wiser than he.

Some of you might be saying,

“But Father! But Father! Vatican II did away with rules. Pope Francis said so! All sacraments should be given to everyone all the time. You are very mean and you have made me sad. I need to be anointed now because of you. Francis says you’re a … a… moralistic quibbler!  And you hate Vatican II!”

Thanks.  Not to nit-pick, but I prefer moralistic doryphore.

Even though there have been scientific advances since these old manuals came out, they contain good theological principles and common sense.  For centuries, and often now, priests don’t find the moribund or deceased in rooms with machines pumping artificial life around the place and taking measurements of brain activity that none of us can perceive without sophisticated thing-bobs. In most cases we have to deal with situations without the help of fantastic gadgets.  We have to determine our course by foundational principles, keen observation of facts, and common sense.

Also, let’s not forget, we must always treat all sacraments with reverential awe.  They are sacred moments of encounter with the living God, wreathed in mystery, simultaneously terrifying and alluring.

Sacraments aren’t lollipops that you get from the nice doctor because the shot made you sad.

Based on our reading, above, a priest has latitude in the administration of the sacrament of anointing of a person who is apparently dead.

I think the distinction of death after long illness and sudden death is helpful.  The idea in the manual I consulted is, I think, that long illness means that the person has been dying for a long time, so the separation of the soul and body will be swifter after the last breath.  In the case of sudden death, the body hasn’t been dying, so the life principle remains longer.

Thus, it seems to me that if a priest arrives after death from a long illness within a short time, a half hour or so, he can and probably should anoint conditionally.  If it is a case of sudden death, such as from an accident, a sudden heart attack when otherwise seemingly healthy, violence, etc., then the priest can and should anoint up to an hour after, but he can, conditionally, until corruption starts to set in.  That might mean rigor mortis, I don’t know.

 How important it is for us to be mindful of our death and the death of loved ones?  We don’t know the minute or the day.  Having a plan when there is serious illness or need, having phone numbers handy, even having a card with the Apostolic Pardon on it for a priest to use… these are important.  You should have a proper sick call set in your homes.  You should make frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance and, each day during the day, say your prayers.  Ask God, perhaps through the intercession of your Guardian Angel and St. Joseph, to preserve you from a sudden and unprovided death.

Remember: Once you are dead, that’s it.  We’ve looked at issues of how long that takes, but at the moment you are truly dead… that’s it.  You immediately go to your Particular Judgment.  There is no turning back.  A hundred bishops could stand over you pouring any amount of oil and chanting the words repeatedly in every language known to man.  Nada.  Nichts.  Nothing. Niente. Nichevo.  Nihil.  Too late.

At the moment of your Particular Judgment your eternal destiny will be irrevocably determined at the throne of the Just Judge, the King of Fearful Majesty.  You will stand before God and every thought, word, act, and omission during your entire life will be laid bare and put into the scales of justice.  It will be determined if you died in God’s friendship or not.  If in his friendship, is there yet a need for purification and expiation of temporal punishment due to sins?  Do you still have attachments to sin or hadn’t taken care of your obligations in justice yet?  All your deeds and, indeed, all your intentions will be weighed.

After your judgment there are only three options, two are eternal: heaven, purgatory, or hell.

“For the hope of the wicked is as dust, which is blown away with the wind, and as a thin froth which is dispersed by the storm: and a smoke that is scattered abroad by the wind: and as the remembrance of a guest of one day that passeth by” (Wis. 5:15).

By mortal sin your cut yourself off from God. You send yourself to hell.

So… pray, do penance, perform good works, examine your consciences, make good plans for spiritual discipline, fulfill your vocations, learn and practice your Faith, make good Communions, use sacramentals and partake in good devotions and…


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