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The Episcopal Church: Last Rites

Updated on June 3, 2013

Last Rites are prayers and ceremonies said for people who are dying. Traditionally, the Last Rites have been part of Roman Catholic life and ritual. The Episcopal Church and other Protestant churches, however, have similar prayers and rituals. The Episcopal prayers for the dying, which are called "Ministration at the Time of Death," have some things in common with traditional Catholic Last Rites, but they are also somewhat different.

Letzte Ölung, Dutch School, c.1600: Last Rites Oil on wood, 92 x 90 cm
Letzte Ölung, Dutch School, c.1600: Last Rites Oil on wood, 92 x 90 cm | Source

Catholic Last Rites

Catholic Last Rites, also called Extreme Unction, are the prayers and anointing given to a person who is gravely ill and in danger of dying. They include the Sacrament of Penance, also called confession of sins; the Eucharist and anointing with oil. The purpose of these rites is to prepare the person for death. If the person is conscious, they are given a chance to confess their sins and to receive absolution from the priest. They are given the bread of the Eucharist as a viaticum, which is Latin for "food for the journey."

The Episcopal Rite

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church contains prayers entitled "Ministration at the Time of Death." Like the Catholics, Episcopalians are encouraged to call a priest when someone is near death. The prayers said over the dying are for comfort and mercy. They commit the dying Christian into God's hands and acknowledge the transition of the soul from this life to eternal life in heaven. Some, but not all, Episcopalians refer to these prayers at the time of death as "Last Rites."

Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O'Callahan, USNR gives "Last Rites" to an injured crewman aboard USS Franklin, 19 March 1945. The crewman is reportedly Robert C. Blanchard, who survived his injuries.
Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O'Callahan, USNR gives "Last Rites" to an injured crewman aboard USS Franklin, 19 March 1945. The crewman is reportedly Robert C. Blanchard, who survived his injuries. | Source
A jar of consecrated oil for ritual purposes. Etched into the glass are the letters "OS" for Oleum Sanctum, Latin for holy oil.
A jar of consecrated oil for ritual purposes. Etched into the glass are the letters "OS" for Oleum Sanctum, Latin for holy oil. | Source

Eucharist and Anointing

Some Episcopalians, high-church Episcopalians in particular, use the ritual for the anointing of the sick as a part of the prayers for the dying. For Episcopalians, anointing is not mandatory as it is for Catholics. The Episcopal anointing rite for the dying is the same as the Episcopal healing rite. Some Episcopal priests also bring the bread of the Eucharist to the dying. Like anointing, Eucharist is not mandatory for Episcopalians as it is in the Catholic tradition. For the Eucharist given to the dying, Episcopalians use the same ritual as they would use for any home visit with communion. Catholics, on the other hand, have a specific viaticum ritual.

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