There are a few religions that practice giving last rites, or the cleansing of their souls and sins, to those who are sick or dying. Last rites are most commonly associated with the Catholic faith as part of what is known as “Viaticum,” or holy communion given at or near death. These special prayers are also given to those who are ill and recovering from sickness offering strength of spirit to recover.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Who Can Give Emergency Last Rites?
- Does a Priest Have to Be Physically Present During Last Rites?
- How Do You Arrange Emergency Last Rites?
When given to those who are dying, last rites are a way for a Catholic person to acknowledge and honor their commitment to their religion and God. They serve as the roadway to God as they transition to the next life according to their faith. They make up part of the seven sacraments — baptism, reconciliation (confession), Eucharist (communion), confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick (last rites).
Below, we explore who can give these rites in an emergency and when they should be given.
Who Can Give Emergency Last Rites?
The sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick can only be given by a priest, but in an emergency, any person designated as a Eucharist minister can give a dying person holy communion and offer the Viaticum. The rite begins with the confession of sins and follows with prayer and communion.
Nothing physically happens to a person who dies without having the last rites administered to them. These are the final prayers and blessings a person receives that give spiritual comfort and a renewed faith that they will walk with Christ to meet their maker.
What to do when someone is dying
When someone you love is dying, you may not be emotionally prepared and ready to handle everything that's needed.
You may not remember to do certain things or take care of some arrangements properly. In addition, you may be drawing a blank when it comes to setting up last rites for your loved one.
When should I call the priest?
If your loved one is in the hospital or facility that provides Catholic pastoral care, you should first notify the staff that you are interested in your loved one receiving Viaticum. Typically there will be an on-staff or volunteer chaplain available to administer “Holy Communion for the Dying.”
If the facility doesn't provide a chaplain or minister, consider placing a call to your loved one's parish to request Viaticum. They will be able to provide pastoral care for those dying in a facility or at home. Once death occurs, you will need to place another call to them to advise so that they can offer ritual prayers for the dead.
How long should I wait before calling?
You shouldn't wait too long before placing these phone calls. Whenever someone is seriously ill, has suffered an accident, or is elderly, you may request for them to be anointed at any time. This anointing can be repeated if their condition worsens or if death is imminent.
Consider notifying facility staff as soon as the illness progresses and there’s a danger of imminent death, or before a risky surgery takes place.
The same is true for contacting your loved one's parish priest. You will want to request the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to be administered along with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
If your loved one is in hospice care, the volunteer clergy and layperson ministers that provide pastoral care can place these phone calls for you. They typically take charge of scheduling these services directly with the church.
Have I waited too long (unconscious or dead)?
A person does not need to be conscious to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The family is able to request this service on behalf of the sick or dying, and the Church will honor the request as if the sick person were requesting the anointment. The prayers will still be heard when prayed over an unconscious person.
If your loved one dies before the prayers are given, there are other special prayers that can be offered instead. The sacraments are spiritual encounters between a living person and God, so it doesn't make sense to have these specific prayers of healing read to those who have died. Your pastoral care team can guide you should arrangements need to be made upon death.
Administering of the rites
Last rites and anointing of the sick are two different prayers and sacraments offered to the living which are usually confused with one another.
Anointing of the sick is given to anyone who is ill, facing surgery, or is in need of healing. Last rites refer to the three sacraments of confession, anointing of the sick, and holy communion, and are usually offered to someone who is seriously ill or in grave danger of dying.
The last rites are administered in the following order, and only upon request of the sick, elderly and dying, or by their family — reconciliation and penance, anointing of the sick, and the viaticum.
Comforting the sick and dying
Before the sacraments are offered, the priest or emergency layperson designated will sit with your sick or dying loved one to offer spiritual counseling, comfort, and guidance to what happens next. They will listen to your loved one and address their spiritual needs and answer any questions they may have.
The last rites begin by making the sign of the cross. If your loved one is unconscious, the person leading the sacrament will lead them in an act of contrition. If your loved one is able to speak and participate, they will be offered reconciliation and penance.
A layperson will not be able to offer confession to your loved one, as this can only be done by a priest or bishop. Your loved one will then be led to recite the Apostle’s Creed.
The anointing of the sick will then be given. This is a special sacrament given to help your loved one in their recovery. If death is imminent, this sacrament is used to help ease your loved one's suffering during their last days.
The Eucharist is then offered by leading your loved one in prayer and recital of the “Our Father” prayer. This is when the final holy communion is offered.
The last rites are then concluded by offering final blessings and prayers.
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Does a Priest Have to Be Physically Present During Last Rites?
During emergencies, or in the case of a national pandemic, last rites can be offered by telephone. A priest does not have to be physically present in order to deliver the sacraments, final blessings, and prayers.
However, the anointing with oil rite cannot be assigned to anyone else such as an attending nurse or doctor. Otherwise, any willing minister who offers the sacraments and last rites to a willing recipient will cause the sacrament to take place.
How Do You Arrange Emergency Last Rites?
Arranging emergency last rites should be approached with love and care. Choosing the right words to say to your loved one will require you to have compassionate deathbed etiquette. When deciding what to say to a dying person, you should consider their mental and emotional state. Consider whether they have accepted that their death is near, or if they are hopeful for recovery.
If they have accepted that their end is near, discuss what will happen next. You may want to call the hospital or facility’s in-house chaplain or pastoral care team to join you in having these conversations. They will be able to facilitate the next steps of arranging last rites for your loved one, especially in an emergency.
Depending on how much time you have, the pastoral care worker will either end up administering the last rites, or making those arrangements for you. If this is not an option available to you, your next option is to place a direct call to your loved one’s local church to arrange for emergency rites either in person or by telephone.
Last Rites in an Emergency
It is absolutely possible to have last rites offered and administered in an emergency by someone other than a priest or bishop.
As long as there is a belief and love of God, an expressed desire for forgiveness, and confession in any form possible — this sacrament can help your loved one die in peace knowing that their spiritual absolution is obtained.