The Liturgy of the Dead

By H. Boone Porter

The autumn is associated with death not only because of the inherent symbolism of dying plants, but, quite specifically, because of All Saints’ Day as a major holy day of the season. In medieval Catholic usage, November 1 was a joyful day celebrating all the heroes, leaders, and exemplars of the Christain faith. November 2, or All Souls’ Day, was a deeply penitential occasion invoking God’s mercy on the ordinary dead, the sinners, who might only hope to enter heaven after a lengthy punishment in purgatory. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants strongly opposed what they regarded as idolatrous honor given to the saints, and what they felt was sacrilegious intercession in behalf of souls already rejected or accepted by God. As usual, the Anglican Church attempted to hold to a middle course, avoiding strong affirmations of either the Catholic or the Protestant views. 

In traditional Anglicanism, the communion of the living and the dead in the liturgy was nonetheless vivid. In the ordinary old fashioned English parish, the church itself was hundreds of years old and bore much evidence of the usage of successive generations. The walls were usually lined with memorial plaques and inscriptions, and the flagstone floors sometimes covered layers of skeletons beneath. The churchyard was the normal cemetery, and worshippers entering or leaving church commonly saw the graves of their forebears and of those of their friends and neighbors. Obviously this is not the usual situation in America, although I recently had the genuine pleasure of going through a country churchyard in Virginia with a veteran parishioner who recounted a personal reminiscence or some anecdote regarding every individual in the entire church yard who was commemorated by a stone dating within the twentieth century!

Americans generally have had to seek other means of expressing a solidarity of the living and the dead. One such means is the widespread Episcopal custom of giving flowers for the altar in memory of deceased relatives or friends. In 1928, the Episcopal Church in this country abandoned the long-standing Anglican reticence about direct prayer for the dead. In a manner unprecedented in previous American revisions, the 1928 Prayer Book provided specific petitionary prayers in behalf of the souls of the departed. This included a new clause added near the end of the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church, occasional prayers for use in the daily offices and family prayer (see pages 42 and 598), a theological recasting of the burial office, and Collects, Epistle, and Gospel for a requiem or memorial celebration of the Eucharist. Nothing like the latter had appeared in an official edition of the Book of Common Prayer since the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The current revision has continued the agenda of 1928 by adding a suitable petition for the departed into the Great Litany (Proposed Prayer Book, page 152), by providing similar clauses in all the forms of intercession for the eucharist, by including additional formularies for requiems which we will discuss, and by further revising the order for burial so that it normatively centers in the Eucharist rather than in the choir office. 

How does all of this bear on our celebration at the beginning of next month? First of all we must recognize that Anglicanism has not maintained the sharp medieval differentiations between the canonized saints and other Christian souls. We have understood All Saints’ Day as a celebration of the communion of saints in the broadest sense— the unity of all the holy people of God. In the original Latin wording of the Apostles’ Creed, sanctorum communio means the communion of holy people, but it also means the communion of holy things, the unity of all who share holy baptism, holy communion, and the holy faith.

Hence All Saints’ Day and commemoration of all Christian souls have in fact been observed together in most parishes on November 1. The custom of reading the names of all parishioners, or relatives and friends of parishoners, who have died during the preceding twelve months was originally an All Souls’ Day usage, but among us it has often comfortably situated itself on All Saints Day, or the following Sunday. In many congregations, the reality is that it is possible to get a goodly number of people to church on an occasional major holy day in mid-week, such as All Saints’ Day. But it is not possible to get such a congregation on two successive week-days. On the other hand, the second day, now recognized in our church as a lesser holy day commemorating all the faithful departed, will be welcome in parishes and institutions having daily services. As lesser holy days may always be legitimately transferred to another open weekday within the same week, some congregations may find it convenient this year, with All Saints’ Day on Tuesday, to commemorate all the departed on Friday. Others will do so on the following Sunday when the observance of All Saints is continued. It must be remembered, however, that this Sunday (like all other Sundays) must be primarily a feast — mourning cannot set the tone of the service on the Lord’s Day.

One advantage of a separate commemoration of all the departed on a weekday is that it provides the opportunity for a requiem celebration of the Eucharist outside the traumatic context of the recent death of a particular individual. Many Episcopalians have had little exposure to the Requiem Mass and would benefit from it. We so often today think of the Eucharist in terms of thanksgiving, joy, and praise that we may forget that it is also concerned with suffering, tragedy, and death. We need to know that this sacrifice and sacrament is available for the latter as well as the former circumstances. 

As to the actual celebration of a requiem, in the 1928 Prayer Book, there is the choice of collects, and the Epistle and Gospel on pages 268-9. The nature of the occasion can be enhanced by using a suitable psalm between the two readings, and using one or more prayers from the Burial Office as allowed by rubric on page 71. Our Hymnal offers many suitable hymns in the sections for Easter, for Saints’ Days, and for the Departed. Among the latter, the great Swahili hymn, Jesus, Son of Mary, Number 223, may be recited at a requiem if singing is not practical. For those using the Proposed Prayer Book, there is a variety of available propers, pages 202 or 253. The liturgy itself can proceed along the usual pattern of Rite I or II, inserting these propers, special intercession (pages 480-1 or 497), proper preface (pages 349 or 382), and proper postcommunion prayer (pages 482 or 498). Another option would be simply to follow the order of burial itself (pages 469-483, or 491-500) concluding with the responsory “Give rest, O Christ,” and the dismissal. In these orders for burial the proper material is indicated at the proper point for the eucharist. A very distinctive service can be celebrated, giving great emphasis to the major Christian teachings about death and resurrection. The amount of material is such, however, that it must be studied carefully beforehand in planning the service. It will also be noted that Burial I and Burial II differ not only in using traditional and contemporary language respectively, but also in some of the actual contents of the material. 

If a non-eucharistic service commemorating the departed is desired, one may use the Ministry of the Word from the burial rite, or one may insert appropriate psalms, lessons, and prayers into Morning Prayer. For a service later in the day, the Order of Worship for the Evening provides a striking context within which to use suitable psalms, lesson, Nunc dimittis, and appropriate prayers. If weather permits, churches which have an adjacent graveyard or columbarium may consider the option of an out-of-doors service at this time. One possibility is to have the Ministry of the Word amidst the graves, with the intercessions said in procession going around the area. All can then return into the church for the remainder of the Eucharist. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was published in our October 2, 1977 issue.

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