Historie – Otázky – Problémy

The Four Last Things in the Discourse of Catholic Church before 1848: Rituals around the Deathbed between Baroque Piety and Enlightened Reason.


Abstract: The attitude of contemporary society towards death is considered to be quite secularized. Although these attitudes can be very individual, it seems, using the words of the french historian Philippe Ari?s, that we have expelled the fact of dying from everyday life. According to Ari?s this tendency came into play at the twilight of the 18th century. The first sort of indicator was the relocation of burial sites outside the city walls and the foundation of some new cemeteries. Indeed the period of the Enlightenment, with its changes in the understanding of the human body, the development of medical science and changes in attitude towards religious experience, seems to be the breaking point in history of death on its route to secularization.
Death in the early modern era was understood as a crucial point of everyone’s life. This was based not only in experience of the physical decay of human body, but also the belief in the four last things – hell, purgatory, heaven and the Day of Judgement. While people in the Middle Ages had to fight for the salvation of their souls on their deathbeds, and by the early 16th century at the latest, people still had to prepare themselves by reading the instructions for good dying in the Ars moriendi books. The whole of human life was understood merely as preparation for death. The question is how the relationship between people and dying changed in the second half of the 18th and the19th centuries.
Even if – according to Ari?s – since the beginning of the 19th century people have been more and more concentrated on death of others, we can not expect that they were not interested in their own deaths. Even if the imagination of the last things had changed, the Catholic Church did not lose its position beside the deathbed in the period before 1848, as most adhered to the strict rules of the Roman Catholic ritual, which offered help and prospects of salvation to believers.
There are many ways to study death and dying throughout history. Having followed the category of discourse on death suggested by the French historian Michelle Vovelle, historians can study the various pieces of knowledge regarding dying in religious and philosophical literature as well as belles lettres. The above-mentioned can reflect the perception of death, concepts of afterlife and forms of death rituals in certain historical period.
This article deals with the form of rituals around the deathbed and their place in the pastoral theology before 1848. This theme is introduced having analyzed two books of pastoral theology which were addressed to priests, practical handbooks of how to treat sick and dying persons in various situations. The author of the article describes the official rules for Catholic priests concerning how to behave in front of death on one hand and some typical features of patients’ behavior, their psychological states and common attitudes to illness and dying on the other hand . The framework of Catholic rituals around the deathbed was created by the ceremonies of Confession, the Eucharist and Last Unction. While the rituals should have adhered to post-Trent Catholic piety, the priest should not have been only a mediator of the sacraments, but a “good shepherd” capable of cultivating the soul of a dying person, a personal guide through illness, the “doctor” of the soul and soother of the grieving family members. He should have spoken to his “patients” according to their social status, age, gender, knowledge and personal qualities. Both authors paid attention to some specific representatives of dying persons (children, very old people, foreigners, vagabonds, madmen and lunatics, etc.) and described their usual behavior patterns on one hand and some communication strategies of how to speak to them effectively on the other.
Both of the analyzed books of pastoral theology make it clear that instead of the early modern motto of memento mori and medieval fight between the devil and angels beside the deathbed, the idea of a good death in the period “between the times” put a great emphasis on understanding illness as a trial – an examination of one’s devotion to God which should lead to an opening of spiritual sight, humility and the changing of one’s life. The imagination of the Last Things in Christian dogma did not need to be dominated by the symbol of Death with the scythe any longer. The Roman Catholic believer before 1848 would have understood death as a silent dream and his grave as an already made bed.

Key words: rituals of death, Catholic Church, Deathbed