After someone has died, there are mourners to comfort. That’s where the Prayer Book’s Prayers for a Vigil come in – after the death but before the burial/funeral. It’s not a feature of the classical Prayer Books, though it is a long-standing custom and a very real practical and pastoral need.
One of the biggest challenges in life, especially in ministry, is knowing what to say at critical moments. Obviously, when someone dies, one can’t just spout off any old sentimental drivel, toxic positivity, or (in the opposite extreme) act callously and flippantly toward those who grieve a loss. This rite helps give us sound words to say: two excellent Psalm examples, two excellent brief Scripture readings, and a set of prayers all geared to help people understand and process the painful reality of death, and the Christian hope to be found therein.
This Customary’s walk-through of the Prayers for a Vigil can be found in full here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-prayers-for-a-vigil/
It goes without saying that what we say to people as their time of death approaches is very important. With limited time left for them to live, we find the need to cut to the chase, say what needs to be said, make amends, confess the truth, and so forth, bubbles up to the surface. Sometimes this can be emotional and difficult, and this applies to the pastoral relationship as well. How does a clergyman minister to someone who is dying?
Various pastoral manuals have always been around to help parish priests care for the flock at time of death, but only in modern times have Prayer Books started including actual rites for such occasions. The rite provided in our 2019 Prayer Book is well-crafted to be a few minutes long, one minute long, or just a few seconds, depending upon the situation’s need. When there is ample time to prepare and space for family members to gather, it can be a strangely beautiful time of worship. Other times it will be a simpler matter: the priest visiting the barely-conscious patient in a hospital bed – time for interaction is just about over and the Last Prayers and Commendations simply need to be given (still heartily and clearly). Or there might be an emergency or other crisis, the priest having only seconds to speak before the chance is lost. This rite provides all you need for any of those situations.
Of course, all that careful liturgical crafting will go to waste if the minister, in a pinch, doesn’t know what’s in this rite and how to implement it when put on the spot. So here is the Saint Aelfric Customary’s explanation of the Ministry to the Dying and how to put the page into practice.