Start of Vespers of the Dead (Walters 267)

Office of the Dead, Revisited

tl;dr: Experimental Versions of Offices for the Dead for Anglicans:

(But you really should read the whole thing anyway…)

As we close out another week inside, a full month worth of quarantine, I’ve been pondering the Offices of and for the Dead in relations to the times we are living through.

There has a been a resurgence of the Daily Office in my media feeds. Clergy trying to stay connected with their flocks are livestreaming Offices. Too, questions abound regarding how a church that has re-focused itself sacramentally with the ’79 prayer book now conducts virtual worship… Do we do virtual sacraments? (I fervently pray not!) Do we become a Morning Prayer church again? (I love the Offices, including public offices; but I’m Eucharistically-centered myself…)

The current situation has us casting back into our history for models how to proceed. One option is the Morning Prayer experience. Do remember that until recently, the Eucharist would occur once a month or once a quarter in many Anglican and/or Episcopal churches. Weekly Eucharist is our present norm, but not the historic Anglican norm.

Another option is to keep going back further still, past the Reformation Period. In the medieval Western Church ocular or spiritual reception of the Eucharist was the norm for most non-clergy and non-nobles despite the prevalence of the rite on a more than daily basis. Is that something to connect to? Or do we move towards a full-on Eucharistic fast for all? Deeply related is the number of clergy I’ve seen with shiny new monstrances. As our context is jarred out of our customary pattern, we suddenly realize that maybe some of those old practices did have a purpose in their time and place—and may be repurposed for our present…

One of the old practices that I have not seen as much is one that may make a great deal of sense, both liturgically and pastorally: The Offices of the Dead. These are one of the liturgical creations of the early medieval period largely unfamiliar to modern Christians with a Reformation heritage (and indeed, also to the vast majority of modern Roman Catholics…). Like the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Office of the Passion, Office of the Holy Spirit, Office of All Saints, etc, the Office of the Dead is an adaptation of the Daily Office where the changeable texts have been replaced with proper psalms and readings. When and where these arose is complicated by the fragmentary nature of our liturgical sources. It appears that these proliferations of liturgical practice were products of monastic liturgical piety in the seventh and eighth centuries, and we see them mentioned in continental  ordines from that time on. Certainly, these many little offices (and accompanying hours which were shorter forms lacking psalms) including the Offices of the Dead were well-known by Carolingian times and our great liturgical master of the period, Amalarius of Metz, refers to the Office of the Dead in his On The Liturgy 4.42.

It’s worth noting that Amalarius, in his exposition, refers back to one of the seminal patristic writings on why, how, and for what purpose the Church prays for the dead, Augustine’s Letter to Paulinus of Nola, On the Care of the Dead which I commend to you.  Augustine is largely agnostic on how these things work, but emphasizes that the practice of praying for the Christian dead is an important and long-standing one even in his day. He does not believe that prayer for the dead benefits those who were not predispose for it by their manner of life. I.e., no one’s prayers will posthumously save the wicked. He allows that those we did strive for righteousness may be aided but is unclear in how that works. What he does mention more than once is the utility of prayers for the dead to the living—that they give aid, comfort, and help us remember the dead as still part of our ecclesiastical present. I think that’s important—I’ll come back to that point…

The Offices of the Dead as the medieval Church received them became a core component of the Books of Hours. These devotional books for the laity usually contained abridgments of monastic and clerical devotions more suited to the busyness of lay life; the Office of the Dead stands out, however, as being the same texts used by clergy and monastics and the laity would pray alongside clerics and monastics using these texts during the burial observances. It’s a key point of cross-over. They consist of three  offices: Vespers, Matins, and Lauds and the first two are known respectively by the first word of their opening antiphon, both of which have passed into modern parlance: Placebo and Dirige (from which we get the word “dirge”). Lauds followed immediately after Matins and the two should be thought of as a lengthy unit rather than two distinct things.

Usually, a dead body would be carried into a church the day before its burial. The community would gather and begin with Vespers of the Dead. The next morning, they would pray the Matins and Lauds of the Dead, then the Requiem Mass would follow, leading to the funeral procession and the burial proper. The Offices would be repeated again with that individual in mind on the third, seventh, and thirtieth day after their burial, and then on its yearly anniversary. In many intentional liturgical communities, the Offices of the Dead were prayed either weekly or daily regardless of whether there were any deaths in the community: it was part of their duty to the wider dispersed community of the Church  to pray for the souls of the departed, known and unknown.

The texts that have come down to us, then, are venerable and represent a theological perspective in line with Augustine’s musings. They are for the benefit and on behalf of dead Christians who are resident in Purgatory. Since it is only “the pure in heart” who “shall see God” (Matt 5:3), and “they shall go from virtue to virtue: the God of gods shall be seen in Sion” (Ps 83:8, Vulgate) it was understood that even the baptized and saved Christian dead needed a process of purification to become truly pure in heart and see God—these prayers are intend to both call to mind this process and to aid those in the midst of it.  As a result, they tend to be rather individual and focus on hopes for one dead person: freedom from hell and forgiveness of sin.  The classical version of the Offices can be found here in both traditional and contemporary language form: Vespers (trad|cont), Matins (trad|cont), and Lauds (trad|cont).

Based on these texts, a few years ago I put together a form that follows the prayer book’s offices. That’s been up at the St. Bede’s Breviary for a while now in both rites: Morning Prayer for the Dead and Evening Prayer for the Dead.

However, in light of our new developing context, I took a look at these again.

[In this time of pandemic, we are in the midst of communities in grief–grieving a variety of different things, including and especially the loss of human life. I felt the need for a liturgy to speak to that situation using well-worn forms. Hopefully, these will provide a liturgical acknowledgment response, and tool as we think about and pray for both the living and the dead in these days and beyond.] *

I’ve done some fixing and tweaking of items in my original adaptation of the traditional materials. In particular, I’ve made the Evening Psalm antiphons more faithful to the tradition instead of re-using some material from the Morning office.

I’ve also created a new adaptation with a slightly different emphasis. One of my pet peeves about the liturgical work done since the ’79 prayer book—especially with references to the sanctoral kalendar—is the implications of a baptismal ecclesiology have not been completely worked out. In my new revision, Form 2 of the Office of the Dead, I’ve tried to consciously do that. This adaptation still proceeds from traditional sources and materials. But, what I had in mind as I edited the texts was considering departed Christian souls within the context of the baptismal community and remembering—with Augustine—that we are gathering in prayer the living alongside the dead. Given a fuller ecclesial or community setting, specific prayers for those who mourn and the church community still on this side of the vale are not inappropriate.

That having been said, I also—personally—do not see these two forms as an either/or but as a both/and; I still believe the traditional model has a spiritual and theological integrity important for us even as I see places where it can be supplemented. I intend to use both and see how they both wear over time. 

So—in this time of zoom Eucharists with spiritual communion, I offer a first draft of an experimental liturgy. Recognizing the reality of death within our communities as well as our dispersed configuration, I offer a modern Episcopal revisioning of the Office of the Dead as a resource for individuals or groups who might find it useful. As a first draft I’m under no illusions of its quality, and am hoping for suggestions and feedback on it.

Both my Form 1 and Form 2 can be found here. Please note that I’m also experimenting with a new aesthetic; in addition to the new look/feel, I constructed it with a phone/tablet layout in mind thinking that I might package it as an app if there is interest. Thus, it might look a little weird on full-size computer display, and you might want to adjust your browser window so it is taller than it is wide for optimal viewing!

So–without further ado:

Experimental Versions of Episcopal Offices of the Dead:


  • Omitted this intended paragraph the first time through…

1 thought on “Office of the Dead, Revisited

  1. John A H Tomoso+

    Thank you, Derek, for this Blog Post… I’m being called to a Diocesan Task Force to look at how we move forward, in this pandemic and quarantine/ distancing time, as a Diocese, with corporate and liturgical prayer, now somewhat forced into on-line and distanced realities. I will this post with our Task Force.

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