On the Requiem, Part I

It has become common in modern Episcopal (and many other) parishes to sing a Requiem on or around All Souls’ Day (and ‘around’ is generous: in a previous place of employment it was sung on the Sunday before – a calendrical fault – and in many places it is sung on the [Sunday after] All Saints’ Day – a serious categorical error betraying the lack of coherent theology of sanctity on the ground in the Episcopal Church). A Requiem is also sung, commonly enough, in a non-Eucharistic service or as a sacred concert. At the same time, some of the texts traditionally appointed for the Requiem Mass challenge many modern ears, and many choral Requiems also challenge some of the rubrics. This article and the next are meant to clarify some of the issues surrounding the offering of a Requiem in today’s Episcopal Church.

History and theology

Requiem is a form of the Latin word meaning ‘rest’. It is the first word of the Mass for the Dead in its received Roman form and thus has come to stand for that Mass or a musical setting of its texts. This particular form of the Eucharist is traditionally used on the day of a death, on the day of burial, at various commemorations of a particular death, and at the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, or All Souls’ Day. The Episcopal Church provides for the celebration of the Eucharist on similar occasions, with some of the same texts as the traditional Roman rite.

The practices of caring for, remembering, and even providing in some way for the ongoing life of, the dead are as old as human history, being (though other animals mourn the death of their companions) one of the defining characteristics of our species according to some. Every human culture, I think we may safely say, has developed and maintained elaborate rituals surrounding death, and even ritually starved Western Protestant-puritan-bourgeois society cannot quite escape the visitation, the obituary, the eulogy, the reception (or at least the memory thereof), for all that the knowledge of what to do post mortem has been handed over to the funeral industry and purveyors of Victorian etiquette.

Though a fully developed doctrine about the afterlife is not part of the Hebrew scriptural witness – and the Bible overall is far from clear about this greatest of mysteries – nevertheless prayers and sacrifice for the dead and a belief in resurrection are attested in the intertestamental period (e.g., 2Mc 12) and, interpreted in the light of the Christian experience, were certainly part of the Church’s understanding and practice from the beginning.

As with marriage and other life rituals, the Church adapted many of its burial and memorial customs from the Semito-Greco-Roman culture in which it first grew up: the viaticum (last meal for the dead, literally ‘for the journey’), preparation of the body, procession to the grave with funeral hymns, the burial, the funeral ceremony and oration, the refrigerium (family picnic at the grave on the birthdays of loved ones), and memorial shrines or temples all have their readily identifiable Christian counterparts: the final Eucharist (actually still called viaticum), saints’ and martyrs’ feast days, shrine churches. From the second century, we know of funeral Masses, and St Augustine celebrated the Eucharist at the graveside of his mother at her burial, noting that we should ask for the prayers of the martys (the first to be identified as ‘Saints’ in the particular sense) and offer prayers for the other deceased. From the third century, there are propers for Mass, Matins, and Vespers of the departed, prayers at the burial, and celebrations on the third, seventh, and thirtieth days and anniversary of a death; from the fourth, the preparation of the corpse with a vigil/wake, a procession from the home to the church, worship in the church with the body present, and a procession to the cemetery for the interment.

Other memorial customs (i.e., not immediately associated with the burial itself) included the offering of bread for the Eucharist in the names of deceased relatives and friends, and later, a naming of the deceased within the Anaphora (where, in the Roman Canon, and in bcp1979’s Eucharistic Prayer D, modeled after that in the ancient Liturgy of St Basil, it still occurs). In the seventh century Isidore of Seville directed monks to offer Mass for the departed on the the day after Pentecost (in the East, the feast of All Saints is kept on the Sunday after Pentecost), and in the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV urged All Saints’ Day to be kept throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile, from around 800, we have evidence of an Office of the Dead; from ca 1000 the Cluniac reform accelerated the trend toward private daily Masses, especially for the dead; and chantries (dedicated chapels with priests to staff them) were established to intercede for the departed, especially after the II  Council of Lyons, in 1274, declared that souls in the (by then quite specifically defined) Purgatory could benefit from the intercessions, Mass, and alms offered on their behalf by the living.

The mature Roman liturgy of the dead consists of a whole constellation of very elaborate observances, many of them consisting of the recitation of a number of Psalms and prayers and frequent use of incense and holy water:

Visitation of the Sick / Dying
     Viaticum (Eucharist)
Preparation of the body
Procession of the body to church & reception of body
Office of the Dead
Absolution / Commendation of the Body
Procession to the grave
Return to the church
Repeated Offices and Masses for the departed

(The Office of the Dead was often said privately by lay persons and formed an important part of most Books of Hours or Primers.)

The hardening over time of pious belief and imaginative imagery into rather specific and technical pronouncements concerning the state of the departed – and the gross abuse, by the later Middle Ages, of the Church’s provisions for prayer for the deceased – were major targets of sixteenth-century reformers, with one result being the massive simplification of the English funeral rites and ceremonies. 

The first Prayer Book included a much simplified Office of the Dead to be used before or after the burial; the burial service itself; and minimal propers for a Mass for the dead, as well as intercession for the departed within the Canon of the Mass. The Second Prayer Book omitted both the Office and Mass, and further simplified the burial service – though the body might sometimes be brought into the church for the observance of the regular Daily Office and Communion before the burial.

Nevertheless Anglicans never ceased entirely to pray for the dead. The 1559 Primer included the Psalms and Lessons from the 1549 Prayer Book funeral services, and at least one of the semi-official 1560 Latin translations of the 1559 Prayer Book included a commemoration for the benefactors of the foundations in which the Latin service might be used, as well as propers for a Communion service for the departed.

In 1662, and the American books up until 1928, the Prayer Book Office of the Dead was to some extent restored, and American books have always included a Mass for the burial. bcp1928 continued a similar structure for the burial service as before, but with more options, and the service for the Visitation of the Sick included a Litany for the Dying.

bcp1979 makes the following provisions surrounding death –

Ministration to the Sick
Ministration at the Time of Death
     Litany for the Dying
Prayers for a Vigil
Reception of the Body
Procession to the grave

– as well as for the Votive Mass for the Departed and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed as mentioned at the outset. Furthermore, explicit prayers for the departed are now found throughout the Prayer Book, all the more important in a culture now in far greater danger of impiety than of superstition, and in which death and the dead are more remarkable for their absence than their presence in our everyday consciousness.

Today the Episcopal Church affirms in its Catechism that ‘we pray for [the dead] because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is’: a practice grounded in the conviction – based on dominical and Pauline teaching and expressed shorthand in various articles of the Apostles’ Creed, viz., Christ’s life, death, descent to the dead, resurrection, and ascension; and the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and the life everlasting – that physical death neither ends our existence nor severs the ties between us, and that Christ’s own path is sign and means of that which the Creator intends for us all.

If there are those who ‘will grow in his love, until they see him as he is’, the Prayer Book and Hymnal also speak of those who ‘have entered into joy’ (Prayers of the People, Form III), chief among them the Blessed Virgin, according to whose Collect God ‘has taken to himself’ and whom ‘Lord of all creation / brought...to his heavenly home; / where, raised high with saints and angels,/ in Jerusalem above,/ she beholds her son and Savior’ (Hymn 278) and also the others who ‘have finished their course’ and who ‘aid us by their prayers’ (bcp 508). These who already enjoy God’s presence fully unveiled do not need our prayers so much as we need theirs.

For all our concern with the departed, the foregoing doctrines concerning the continuity of life either side of the grave also lead us to understand the Kingdom of Heaven, the abundant and eternal life – as well as its opposite – as a present reality as much as an ultimate one, and to see sin and even salvation as corporate as well as individual matters. These understandings can then help us to heed some parts of the Requiem that might challenge modern ears. For, as one of the Anthems says, ‘in the midst of life we are in death’; and as the Tract and Offertory (both originally prayers for the dying) as well as the daily news remind us, flames lick at the edges of even the most affluent and stable societies, the Deep nibbles away at our shores and suddenly opens wide its maw, there is much uproar and posturing among the packs and prides, and great suffering – in which we are all in some way implicated – is already present enough for many millions of souls. Thus in the Requiem we pray not only for the dead, but also for the dying, which includes every one of us; and we are reminded of the need we all have to repent of our destructive ways and appetites, and instead to live lives that prepare us to meet our Maker, in those around us and in our own hearts, in the Sacraments, at the end of our lives and the end of all things – meetings which, our tradition tells us, include the likely painful and ultimately inevitable exposure and consumption by the divine glory of all masks, all walls, all idols, all dross, that imprison, enslave, distract, and corrupt: the ‘growing in his love until we see him as he is’ of which the Catechism speaks.

Thus the Church prays that in time we will come to offer willingly our whole selves with our ‘sacrifices and prayers of praise’, borne up by Christ’s one all-sufficient self-sacrifice by which the gaping mouth of death has in turn been swallowed up; and we boldly believe and repeat the words of the angel who commanded St John to write ‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: thus says the Spirit: for they rest from their labors’, and pray that all may be among them.