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History of the funeral Liturgy

Author: Mrs. Myriam Van Lerberghe-Thibaut

Some chants get lost in oblivion while they are impressive and beautiful, and suddenly they become alive again, the Dies irae is one of those. What about all this? Is this just a trend? Or is there more that matters? Of course. Let us shed some light on the evolution of the funeral Liturgy, with respect to history.

The first centuries of Christianity.

The thought on life and death of the first christians was very similar to that of the Jewish tradition during the time BC. The dead rested in their graves in some sort of lethargy, waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. At that moment they would rise from the grave and share eternal life.

Contrary to the conception of later times, those christians were not thinking of some place but of a state characterized by rest and peace, e.g. "In Abraham's bosom" of "in the proximity of Christ: the Good Shepherd". These thoughts are expressed in the oldest text of the Gregorian funeral Liturgy, e.g. in In paradisum ("may the Angels guide you..."). The first centuries martyrs did not have to wait for the Second Coming: they shared directly eternal life.

After the persecution and the conversion of Constantine in 313, Christianity became the official state religion and for some people idealism and commitment were at least partially lost. As a consequence Saint Augustine started to wonder if it was so obvious that any baptized christian should share eternal life, as was commonly accepted. He stated that some souls had to go through a time of purification before they could be found worthy to enter eternal life. This meant that immediately after death a "judgement" had to take place.

These thoughts of sinfulness and judgement start to proliferate in Church reasoning. At first in the classes of learned people and theologians, a lot later with the common people as well. In the Liturgy this thought is dubbed in the words that we know as the Libera me (VIIth-VIIIth c.): "Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on the frightening day that you will be judging...". The fear of death and judgement is present already but is still mitigated by the thought of liberation and redemption by Christ. That kind of faith reaches our region about AD 700.

From the Middle Ages on

Real fear of death and judgement is feeded by the catastrophes inflicted on Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Wars, floodings, fires in cities and towns but especially epidemics, the most horrible of which was the "Black Death", the bubonic plague from 1347 to 1352. 25 million European people died, a third of the population.

Fear of judgement becomes prevalent in the Liturgy, not only of the First Judgement, immediately after death, but even more the Last Judgement at the Second Coming. The liturgical expression of this fear can be found in the Dies irae: the day of wrath when the universe will crumble into dust... This medieval chant has determined the Litugry until the Second Vatican Council.

Second Vatican Council

The funeral Liturgy is not really changed until AD 1970. The perception of death changes. It seems that the own death is no longer in the center but rather the death of the loved neighbour. The matching picture of the afterlife shows the heavens as a place where all will be united again.

One of the merits of the Second Vatican Council (1963-1964) is that the Easter thought, the "Glad Tidings of redemption", has been put in the focus of the funeral Liturgy again. The Victimae pascali laudes is an example of this. The Dies irae disappears from the funeral Lirturgy and the topic of redemption and looking forward with hope is in the focus again.

But when by the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church allowed a new form of Liturgy in the vernacular, Gregorian chant was pushed to the background. Unfortunately the new songs failed to reach the same quality as the Gregorian chants. The ethical and aesthetic value of the songs was left in favour of a better understanding of the new translated lyrics. The incidental artistic deterioration is undeniable.

Fortunately it is realized nowadays that Gregorian chant comprises an irreplaceable legacy, for the church music and for European music as a whole. So one can notice a common revival of Gregorian chant in some liturgical celebrations, a timid and gradual revaluation indeed, but certainly a hopeful start!

The same tendency is to be found in the funeral Liturgy. On top of that, thanks to the changed mentality, all chants are sung again. So it is possible again to be touched by listening breathless to the Dies irae or Libera me. Because next to the liturgical-religious value, the proper aesthetic value is now considered important.

All of us who actively practice Gregorian chanting in a choir, we are helping to make Gregorian chant resound as a living part of the liturgical celebrations where it belongs.

All comments

Our commentators:

  Mr. Jean-Pierre Exter
  Mrs. Myriam Van Lerberghe-Thibaut

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