Most devout Catholics hope to receive six of the seven Sacraments available to them. No one asked them to agree to receive the first, Baptism, nor the second, third and fourth (Penance, the Eucharist and Confirmation). But they did have their choice about the fifth – admittedly limited in the Catholic social environment in which they grew up; it would never have occurred to them to “get married outside the Church”. The Sacrament of Matrimony, they were told, was in fact the only Sacrament (apart from Baptism, in case of emergency) that they could themselves administer (in the presence of a priest, of course). With five Sacraments up their sleeve, and with little (up recently from no) prospect because married – there have long been exceptions – of receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the sixth and last would be Extreme Unction, the Final Anointing, symbolizing the strengthening of the soul for the final journey at the hour of their death.
Although I am not on my death-bed, my sacramental score is already six out of seven. And it will remain so. I had the rare “privilege” of receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony, officially sanctioned (but “sub rosa”, secretly) after my dispensation from the obligations attached to my earlier reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. There remains only one for me to have the full sacramental deck. I can understand the desire of some well-meaning, sincere relatives to facilitate my crossing of the Styx. But when the time comes, whether I’m conscious or not, I want nothing of the “Extra Munction”, as we used to call it as kids.
Vikings put their dead on a drakkar, pushed it out to sea, then shot lighted arrows to set it alight : more dramatic than a priest’s discreet anointing of the body of the moribund in a hospital or at an accident in the street. Kirk Douglas’ cinematic passing was far more moving than our Last Rites, tombside funeral included. The only trouble is that neither Valhalla nor Heaven exist.
The Church used to forbid cremation, long considered a denial of physical resurrection, and to impose burial, along with some other obligations like no meat on Friday and no work on Sunday. Holy Mother Church has become far more liberal and no longer insists on certain of the obligations I grew up with. About to end up six feet deep or burned to ashes, I do not need or want Extreme Unction. On principle. It will be my formal statement of my firm belief that death is the definitive end of personal existence. I need no help for the “journey” to another, imaginary life. But I would appreciate it if my loved ones, when I die, revived the Irish wake. Leave out the religious trappings, just break out the Guinness and the Tullamore Dew (“give every man his Dew”), Frank’s dead and gone (“Thanks be to God”, some will say). He had a good life, a life worth living. May we all be as lucky. May he rest in nothingness (I will), but for a while at least, remain in our memories (I might). “For he was a jolly good fellow” – or perhaps “For he was a damn lucky bastard”. The lyrics chosen will depend on the amount of liquor consumed.