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Last Rites is a term that is used to refer to end of life rituals that are conducted under the direction of a religious authority when it is apparent that an individual is likely to die in a short time. In the strictest sense, Last Rites is more a popular connotation than an actual doctrinal term. While commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, several other Christian denominations also practice a form of these end of life rituals. Popular culture has tended to identify Last Rites as a single ritual that is performed as the recipient is on his or her death bed. However, the process of administering Last Rites is actually more involved and comprehensive.
In fact, administering the Last Rites in the Roman Catholic tradition involves the offering of three distinct rituals. The first ritual, known as Penance, makes it possible for the individual to have a priest hear a last confession and be forgiven of sin by Christ through the ministry of the priest. In situations where the individual is unable to participate in a last confession, the priest is empowered to extend the healing forgiveness of Christ to the individual, allowing the person to die in a state that is without blemish.
The second ritual associated with the Last Rites is known as the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Known for many centuries as Extreme Unction in the west, this sacrament is designed to provide physical and mental relief to the individual who is about to die. The Anointing is provided by the priest who is attending the sick or injured individual. Many people consider the Anointing to be the centerpiece of the Last Rites.
Holy Communion is the final ritual offered as part of the Last Rites. Along with carrying all the meaning that is normally associated with the offering of Holy Communion at mass, the sacrament takes on additional meaning when offered to someone who is about to depart this life. Sometimes referred to as Viaticum, the sacrament in these circumstances is also intended to help make provisions for the departed soul as he or she begins the journey to the next phase of existence. Viaticum can be administered by a deacon or even a layperson if a priest is not available.
Along with the Roman Catholic Church, many other Christian denominations offer rituals that provide some of the same comfort that is derived from the Last Rites. In most cases, end of life rituals of this type are designed to help assure the dying individual that he or she will shortly awaken in a more glorious place and that life will continue beyond the temporal existence found here on earth. From this perspective, the administration of the Roman Catholic Last Rites and similar rituals in other churches can be seen as a comfort not only to the individual who is dying, but also to loved ones. These end of life rituals serve to remind all concerned of the central Christian tenet of eternal life in the presence of God and continuing fellowship with those who are near and dear.