Critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of two theoretical approaches to death in relation to a specific death ritual (or no more than 2 specific death rituals)
This essay critically assesses the strengths and weaknesses of two theoretical approaches to death in relation to a specific death ritual. I have researched the topic of intercession by the living on behalf of the dead and it is this ritual that I have chosen to discuss here; it is a subject I have been interested in since my upbringing was largely Catholic and intercession still forms part of the current Catholic catechism or ‘rule book’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.d.). I am limiting my investigation of the topic to the western (non-Orthodox) Christian tradition, in the period post-reformation (c1559), in order to be able to explore this with more focus and in more depth.
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The ritual of intercession
The traditional belief in intercession is that the prayers and acts of the living on behalf of the dead and dying will be heard by God and that these will shorten the time the soul spends apart from God, usually taken to be in purgatory – a place where the souls of those judged to be worthy of heaven go as an interim place of refinement and/or punishment for sins, whilst they wait to become pure enough for heaven. The Protestant church abandoned belief in purgatory at the time of the Reformation, deciding it had no Biblical foundation – if additional ‘work’ was required to make the deceased pure in God’s sight then that meant that the doctrine of being saved by God’s grace alone was untrue . The implication of the removal of purgatory was that the practice of intercession by the living for the dead and dying was also removed from the Protestant belief.
In this essay I argue that there are still practices being continued that echo the tradition of intercession, both within the Protestant church and in the secular general community as well as by the Roman Catholic church. I include a brief history of intercession and the doctrine of purgatory to set the scene and explain the ritual.
The theories of death
The theories I have chosen in relation to intercession are words against death (as developed by Douglas Davies) and mythic transcendence (David Chidester) . I have included here a very brief introduction of the theories and will explore these and their connections to the ritual of intercession further on.
Words against death is explained by Davies in his book ‘Death, Ritual and Belief’ (2017). Davies expounds his theory that words spoken during death rites are said at times when we are brought face-to-face with our own mortality by the death of a loved or valued member of our society, whether family or in a wider social context. In order for the community to come back together and overcome the fear and anguish that the death has wrought in those left behind, words against death are spoken to highlight the triumph of that community against the arbitrary nature of death.
Mythic transcendence is one of Chidester’s four ways of describing the transcendence of death (the others being, ancestral, experiential and cultural). Chidester says that ‘mythic transcendence tends to be based on a commitment to the survival of the person after death’ and he places religious belief in the afterlife in this category. In the Christian tradition this involves repentance and forgiveness of sins, divine judgment and eventual resurrection of the body. This resurrection of the body when Christ returns is a promise of immortality as well as of transcendence; we see in the celebration of Communion, the breaking of bread (the body of Christ) and drinking of the wine (the blood of Christ), a symbolic act of transcending death – the implication is that Christ overcame his bodily, human form and that those who believe can do so as well.
I will explore these theories and their connections to the ritual of intercession further.
A brief history of original sin, purgatory and intercession
In order to give some further context to the idea of intercession I should explain the background to how it came to be seen as necessary in the early church.
In the Book of Genesis, we are told God created Adam and Eve without sin, in a perfect world and crucially, a world without death. After the Fall – the eating of the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and subsequent banishment from the Garden of Eden and the sight of God – mankind was also forbidden to eat from the Tree of Life and became subject to death and final judgement of sins by God, who decides if they should go to hell, heaven or whether they need further purification in an alternative state known as purgatory. In late medieval times, it was thought that only the saints went directly to heaven and therefore everyone could expect to spend some time in purgatory. The Council of Trent, held in 1563, enshrined purgatory into Catholic doctrine where it remains a central tenet of Catholic belief to this day.
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The idea of intercession by the living on behalf of the dead and dying had been part of Catholic belief for a long time: “The theology of purgatory turned on the notion of satisfaction, the payment to God by works of mercy, by penitential practices, and by prayer, of the debt due after sin had been forgiven.” (Duffy, 1992). This debt typically took the form of prayers and masses performed before and immediately after death, and then at various intervals afterward; also giving alms to the poor and fasting. There is also a concept of reciprocity – that the dead will also intercede directly with God on behalf of the living in answer to prayer.
In the early 16th century the Church extended the purchase of indulgences – payments to the church for exemption from penances should you die without confessing your sins – to cover those who were already dead. This led to the rich and influential being able to pay for reduction of the time spent in purgatory by their relatives, whilst the poor presumably suffered the pains without the benefit of any time being taken off for good behaviour.
The practice of purchasing indulgences was called to account by Martin Luther, a German monk who started the Reformation, a Europe-wide movement which took place around the middle of the 16th century and led to the founding of the breakaway Protestant church. The doctrine of purgatory was done away with and with it, the concept of intercession as Luther held there was no biblical basis for it and this has remained the Protestant belief to this day.
The theory of words against death applied to intercession by the living for the dead
In Death, Ritual and Belief (Davies, 2017) Douglas Davies says that words against death are ‘performative utterances’ which help the living to cope with death through the use of ritual language and practice, talking to and of the dead, and through this dialogue to come through the experience of death with a sense of triumph. Furthermore, he goes on to state that ‘words’ need not confine themselves to prayer or liturgy but can also cover hymns, where the addition of music can make them more powerful, eulogies, orations and even such things as memorials which do, of course, frequently have words inscribed upon them. There are of course, other opinions and contributions to be made regarding the theory which I hope to show further in this exploration.
Intercession fits very neatly into the category of words against death. Historically speaking, death would have been a frequent and savage visitor; God was viewed as merciful and just, even when suffering and protracted death was common. Therefore the bereaved would frequently start praying that God would look kindly upon the dying person before death had actually occurred, in an effort to ensure that any reduction of purgatory was being started as soon as the departed were being judged before God.
- Duffy, E. (1992). Chapter 10, The Pains of Purgatory. In: Duffy, E. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. 2nd Edn. Yale University Press. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm716.15 . 338-376. [Accessed 02/12/18]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2N.HTM
- Edwards, D. (1999). After Death? Past Beliefs and Real Possibilities. London: Cassell.
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