Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Durandus on Prayer for the Dead (Part 4): Funeral Customs

This post concludes our series of excerpts from the entry on All Souls’ Day in William Durandus’ Rationale Divinorum Officiorum (7.35), the Summa Theologiae of medieval liturgical commentaries. This entry is one of the longest sections of the seventh book, which covers the Sanctoral cycle, and covers basically every aspect of the Church’s prayers for the dead. Click these links to read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Now we must see how a body ought to be buried. When a man seems to be in extremis, he should be laid on the ground upon ashes, or at least upon hay, which indicates that he is dust, and unto dust he shall return. This is done following the example of the blessed Martin, who ended his life lying upon ashes, in order to give an example to others. And if the person dying is literate, the passion of the Lord should be read in his presence, or at least a part of it, so that he may be moved to greater compunction. A cross should be set up at his feet, so that as he is dying, he may by looking upon it be more contrite, and be converted. He should also lie on his back, so that with his face upright, he may look upon heaven, following the example of the blessed Martin, and his soul be commended to the Lord before he expires.

The Death of St Martin, 1490, by the workshop of the German painter Derick Baegert (1440-1515). Note the straw mat under his body; one can hardly fail to note the two-headed demon at the head of the bed, to whom Martin said just before he died, “Why are you standing here, cruel beast? You shall find no cause for grief in me!” (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
After he dies, the bells should be rung (so that the people may hear it and pray for him). Then the body should be washed, unless the person was anointed shortly before he died, to signify that if the soul is cleansed from sin through confession and contrition, both the body and the soul will obtain eternal exaltation and glory on the day of judgment; and likewise for this reason, as Job says, they truly die in the Lord and are blessed who bear no stain with them, but in this world leave (every stain behind) through penance. But in both the Old and the New Testament, nothing is done about this washing if it is omitted (i.e. no penalty is prescribed for omitting it), so it is not a matter of particular importance. As Augustine says in his book On the Care to be Taken for the Dead, that which is done for a human body after death is not a help to salvation, but the duty of humanity. (cap. 18 in medio. This passage was added to the Office of All Souls’ Day by the breviary reform of St Pius X.)

Nonetheless, since Mary Magdalene anointed the Lord before his passion (for when He was about to die, she did this, which she could not have done once He had already died, as the Lord says, “She is come beforehand to anoint my body for burial”), from this it can be proved that the bodies of the dead are to be washed. For as Jerome says, in those parts of the world, they use ointments instead of baths.
Mary Magdalene Anoints the Feet of Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, ca. 1520, by the Veronese painter Bonifazio de’ Pitati, also known as Bonifacio Veronese (1487-1553). Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0.
A canon of the council of Toledo established that those who depart from this life at God’s call should be brought to burial with psalms, only sung by human voices (i.e. without instrumental accompaniment). The dead man ought to be carried by those who share his state in life, i.e., a deacon by deacons, a priest by priests etc. … but if he belongs to a confraternity, he should be carried by his fellow members. …
While they are carried from their house to the church or the place of burial, according to the custom of some places, three stops are made on the way. First, to signify that by living in this life in such a way that he could be worthily presented to the Lord and enjoy perpetual rest with the other Saints, he exercised himself especially in three things, namely, in the love of the Lord, in charity to his neighbor, and in keeping himself (in grace); or else because he lived and died in the faith of the Holy Trinity. Secondly, to represent that the Lord rested for three days within the earth. Third, the three pauses are made on the way so that through the three parts of the psalmody which is then said, there may be done the threefold absolution from sins committed in three ways, that is, by thought, by word and by deed.
Then he is laid in the burial place, and in some places blessed water is put in it, and coals with incense. The blessed water is so that demons, which fear it very much, may not come near the body… incense to take away the stench of the body, or so that we may understand that the dead person offered to his Creator the acceptable odor of good works, or to show that the help of prayer benefits the dead. Carbons are put in to bear witness that the land can no longer be reduced to common usages, for carbon lasts longer upon the earth than anything else. Ivy, laurel, and plants of this sort, those which always preserve their greenness, are laid out in the sarcophagus, to signify those who die in Christ shall not cease to live, for although they died to the world according to the body, nevertheless they live according to the soul, and revive unto God. …
A bishop incenses a cross with three candles on its, set up for the solemn blessing of a cemetery according to the Pontifical of Clement VIII. (Image used by the kind permission of the Pitts Theological Library, Candler School of Theology at Emory University.)
These things are done, not because there is any sense left in cadavers, but as a figure, namely, either so that men may hope for the resurrection, or for God’s mercy, or to bring His benevolence, since such offices of piety are pleasing to Him. Now a man should be buried in such a way that his head is towards the West, and his feet towards the East, as if he were praying in that position, which signifies that he is ready to hasten from the setting of the sun to its rising, that is, from the world to eternity. And wherever a Christian is buried outside a cemetery, a cross must always be put at his head to signify that he was a Christian, because the devil greatly dreads this sign, and fears to come to a place marked with the sign of the Cross.
Faithful Christians ought also to be buried with a cloth on the face, the custom which country people observe, taking it from the Gospel, in which we read about the face-cloth and shroud of Christ. Some people sew sack-cloth onto this, so that by this garment they may represent the signs of penance, for ashes and sackcloth are the arms of the penitent. Nor should the dead be dressed in common clothes, as they do in Italy, and, as some people say, they ought to be wearing shoes, to signify that they are ready for the judgment (i.e. to stand before Christ at the judgment).
If they are ordained as clerics, they should be clothed the instruments which the orders that they have require … and although in the other orders this practice is often omitted because of poverty, with a priest or a bishop, it should never be omitted, for the priestly vestments signify the virtues, with which those two orders above all others ought to be presented (to God). Pope Eutychian (275-83) established that no one should bury the martyrs without a dalmatic or a violet tunic.
The Funeral of St Martin, 1322-26, depicted in the chapel dedicated to him in the lower basilica of St Francis in Assisi, by the Sienese painter Simone Martini (1284-1344). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The question is also posed whether men will be nude or clothed after the day judgment. And it seems that they will be clothed, for angels are always wont to appear clothed, and Christ also after the Resurrection appeared clothed, and at the Transfiguration, whence His garments were made white like snow. On the contrary, it seems that they will be naked, for authority has it that we will be in the same form in which Adam was before he sinned, and even in a better one, therefore we likewise will be nude. The solution is this: we make no definition about the garment, but say only this, that there will be no deformity, nor any adversity, or infirmity, and we will be dressed and adorned with the garments of the virtues. …
The Last Judgment, painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel from 1536-41. The nudity of the great majority of the figures, (the object of much criticism at the time the painting was made), expresses the Church’s belief that in “the resurrection of the flesh”, the sin of Adam will be finally and definitively undone, and with it, the shame which we feel over our nakedness, caused by that sin. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
… because it is written (Lev. 21, 11) that “the priest shall not go in at all to any dead man, neither shall he go out of the holy places,” the Roman Pontiff does not go to the house of a deceased person. Again, because it is said in the same place, “Neither shall they shave their head, nor their beard, nor make incisions in their flesh”, therefore, those who are saddened by the death of their loved ones let their beards grow, and do not cut their hair, and also wear black clothing, so that through their somber dress and grief, they may seem to be buried along with the dead.

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