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Bring Back the Catafalque

By Leander S. Harding

I learned from the great theorist of education Elliot Eisner and his book The Educational Imagination, to look for three curricula in any regimen of education and information: what is taught explicitly, what is taught implicitly, and what is taught by virtue of its absence. I have found this a tool a great aid to a theological examination of conscience. I realized ten years into my life as a preacher that I preached explicitly about unmerited grace but that my emotional posture implicitly communicated desperate works righteousness. I also realized with a shock that the theme of judgment had fallen completely into what Eisner calls the null curriculum. I was teaching something about judgment by almost never commenting upon the theme from the pulpit. It is not very original to point to the denial of death in our culture. Are we aware of the degree to which death and those great themes that cluster about death — judgment, heaven, purgatory, and hell — have fallen into the null curriculum in the church? In both the society at large and in many parish churches, death has become invisible and we are teaching about death and preparing for death mostly through the null curriculum.

A robust liturgical celebration of All Souls’ Day can be a needed correction and a profoundly pastoral experience of deep Christian formation. Anglicans are ambivalent about All Souls’ Day. To have a separate day for All Souls implies that there is a distinction between all the saints and the souls of all the faithful departed, and, along with the distinction, is the implication that it makes some sense to pray for the dead. In practice parishes that keep All Souls’ Day use the day to remember members of the parish that have gone before us. In some parishes a roll is read or at least published of all those who have died in that parish since its founding. In many places those who have died in the past year are prayed for by name. There is real pastoral wisdom in keeping this feast which brings death to mind and calls forth the personal grief and mourning of the congregation and especially those for whom grief is fresh and raw.

I am unembarrassed by the doctrine of purgatory. Some sort of post-mortem purgation seems unavoidable. If I go directly to the presence of the Lord when I die, how shall that encounter be other than a fiery repentance, even if it be instantaneous. Article XXII clearly condemns the “Romish doctrine” of purgatory. I am not sure what the Romish doctrine was when the Articles were composed and whether the authors of the Articles clearly understood it. The monetization of the doctrine is certainly an abuse. If it is really beside the point to pray for the dead, then it seems to me that whole portions of the Burial Office are pointless. Very few of the faithful will be talked out of the instinct to pray for their dearly departed by stern references to Reformation theology. In my view it is pastoral and theological wisdom to provide an occasion which brings the death of those we have loved and lost into full view. When their death becomes visible, our own death becomes visible, and there in the valley of the shadow of death, perhaps we may hear more clearly the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name and tells us that He has gone before us to prepare a place for us and that he is the resurrection and the life and that all that cometh to him, he shall in no wise cast out.

It is very hard to keep death in view. We naturally draw back from thinking of our own death especially before we reach the halfway mark in life. It is possible for a young person to hit age thirty and never to attend a funeral. More and more I find myself trying to gently persuade families not to put the memorial off until the family can all get together in six months or a year from now, because I know that there is a not-insignificant chance that the get-together will never happen. A memorial service without remains is more and more common and unclaimed ashes is a problem that your local funeral director will be happy to discuss with you. Parents die and the children meet later for a memorial service never having seen the parents dead. Perhaps the small decorous container with the ashes is there. Often nothing is there. The dead are missing from our midst. People die and they just disappear.

I was meditating on these realities some years ago when I attended a conference at the Church of the Advent in Boston. The conference started the day after All Souls’ and that great Anglo-Catholic flagship had celebrated All Souls’ with a Requiem and a catafalque surrounded by six bier candles. Catafalque means literally a scaffolding and the catafalque for All Souls’ Day is a coffin or the effigy of a coffin raised up on trestles and vested with the funeral pall and represents the dead for whom our prayers are being offered.

There, at the crossing of the church, in front of the high altar, the missing dead had become palpably visible. I was moved by the scene and resolved to introduce the practice at the cathedral where I serve.

That year one of the oldest and most loved members of our congregation had died. There was no burial service. The surviving family did not want one. His closest friends in the congregation made a special effort to come to the All Souls’ service that year and the sight of the vested catafalque drew forth grief that had been festering. When Queen Elizabeth died, we had a special requiem for her and used the catafalque and nearby a large portrait of the queen. There was a genuine outpouring of grief for Elizabeth, but the occasion also brought death to light, awakened grief and mourning and therefore also awakened the hunger for eternity and opened hearts and ears to the words of eternal life.

At the end of the Requiem for All Souls’ Day the catafalque is asperged with holy water. This is sometimes called the Baptism of the Dead. The ceremony is an allusion to baptism and an acted-out prayer for our beloved dead and proleptically for ourselves, pleading the sacrifice of the Lord and that fountain drawn from Emmanuel’s veins where sinners who are immersed beneath that flood are purged and lose all their guilty stain.

Bring back All Souls’ Day and bring back the catafalque. On at least this one occasion let us see death visible and our beloved dead visible, front and center, taking up space, demanding our attention and prayers. Let the liturgy do its work of bringing us to Christ and Christ to us, now and in the hour of our death.


  1. Would it be reasonable or acceptable to have a remembrance like this on the Sunday before All Souls or is that day the only suitable time? In many churches having anyone attend on a day other than Sunday would be difficult at best.

  2. I wonder if the catafalque belongs, along with the ‘riderless horse’ at military funerals, and the cenotaph funerary monument, in a category of “things that symbolically signify absence.”

  3. Excellent. Well said. Blunt makes the case that the Anglo-Catholic criticism of the saints apparent in the articles is specifically referring to the exaggerated veneration to the point of Christ-replacement in mariolarty, superstition, and traffics gained from absolution or indulgence. The Romans have downplayed or outright self-depreciated these aspects from their polity. The concern is that once these issues are addressed, we would continue to extend the intent and plane statement of the article too far. In an effort to avoid invoking the saints, we risk forgetting them.

    One of my favorite aspects of Anglicanism is this past, present, and future proclivity to share the hope of Christ with all the saints militant through communion.


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