Posted by: kljolly | January 22, 2016

Death Rituals

Now that I have worked out the basic sequence for an infant baptism, I am turning to the sequence of events for the dying and dead.

The goal here is to figure out how a conscientious early 10th century Northumbrian bishop (Tilred) would approach having to carry out both tasks in the same day for his own family:  the death of his brother-in-law Alfred and the baptism of his newborn nephew Aldred, while blessing and comforting the widow and new mother, his sister Tilwif.  I want to create a liturgical sequence that is disordered and disorienting for the participants, but still plausible.

The difficulties have to do with time and place:  what follows what in the rituals, what can be interrupted, but also what happens if the participants are moving from one location to another, in this case taking the body of Alfred from Chester-le-Street, where he dies after arriving mortally wounded from the Battle of Corbridge (918), to Easington, his estate where Tilwif gives birth to Aldred.

Another timing issue is how soon after death someone was buried versus how soon after birth would a (sickly) newborn be baptized?  Could I delay the burial long enough to make the entrance of a determined mother and her newborn into the manorial church where her husband’s body lay plausible?  Or, although it decreases the drama of it, the birth could take place earlier, during the Battle of Corbridge rather than upon hearing the news of her husband’s injuries.

The penitentials indicate that the basic components of a funeral would include bringing the body to the church, signing the cross on his or her breast, celebrating a mass, then taking the body to the grave with songs, and the closing of the grave (Lee, Feasting the Dead, pp. 104-05, citing Penitentials of Theodore for religious men and Pseudo-Egbert for laymen).  Although certainly services and commemorations for members of a religious community would be more extensive than a layperson’s, Alfred as a protector of the community and relative of the bishop might have had something more elaborate than the ordinary lay ceremonies.

Using the Leofric Missal as a handy guide, the rituals performed by Bishop Tilred, and his deacon Aldred (godfather to infant Aldred) might include:

  1.  Ordo visitandum et unguendum infirmum (Leofric 2507-22).  The first task, today called Last Rites, would be prayers over the dying man, which includes confession, asperging with water, anointing with oil in cross shaped patterns, and communion.  The Missal of Robert of Jumièges (pp. 290-94) has Old English rubrics for this ritual, so I may switch over to it.
  2. Ordo in agenda mortuorum, beginning with Orationes super defunctum (Leofric 2198-08), which Tilred and his community would move into from the previous Ordo somewhat seamlessly with the seven penitential psalms once again, followed by responses and antiphons.  I surmise that this kind of thing probably happened frequently, the need to go from the prayers over the dying to the prayers over the dead.
  3. Orationes quando inciperint corpus lavare (Leofric 2209-11).  For this washing of the body, I am imagining the Chester-le-Street resident clergy (whether classifiably monks or not, this would include novices and all ranks up to priests and the bishop) gather around the room to perform these prayers, while lay women from the community estate enter to wash the body.
  4. The body is then moved to the church with antiphons and responsories sung along the way, and psalms and prayers after arriving in the church (Leofric 2212-14).  Here is where I am having Alfred’s body transported from Chester-le-Street to Easington, a 12 mile journey.  According to GoogleEarth and maps, a bicyclist could do it in just over an hour.  However, an ox-drawn cart is considerably slower, at least according to Civil War buffs and U.S. western expansion wagon-train websites, more like 2-3 miles per hour.  So, it would take half a day for the body to get there, which I am positing as departing at midday if he arrived from the battle the night before, died in the early morning hours, and the above rituals are performed first:  so, arriving at Easington at dusk.  Those on the wagon are chanting the above, including the Greek Kyrie eleison, which I imagine would echo oddly in the English countryside.  Upon arrival at the Easington manor, the local priest and his young assistant would join in to complete the ritual of bringing the body (in a coffin?) into the church.   Manorial estate serving women would add fragrant herbs to the coffin and six remaining men (too young, old, ill to go to the battle and left to guard the estate) would carry it in and stand as honor guard.
  5. Mass; prayers and responses that follow (Leofric 2215-20).  Although presumably this could take place immediately that evening, it seems plausible to conduct it the next morning, followed by burial during daylight hours.  Tricky here is whether the baptism of the infant can take place after the Mass but before the burial. It creates a jarring scene as the congregants turn from the altar and body toward the (possible makeshift) font in the back of the nave, before processing out to the burial site. The problem is that we need another mass after the baptism as “first communion,” which would then have to be done after the burial, returning to the church.
  6. Burial.  The body is carried out of the church and to the place of burial with antiphons and placed in the grave with prayers (Leofric 2221-28), followed by Orationes post sepultum corpus (Leofric 2229-41).  These prayers are said after the body is buried, presumably while everyone is still graveside, and includes the commendation of the soul.
  7. Tilwif and her newborn would not go to the graveside service, but could later return to the church for the baptism first communion mass.  Could the local priest stay to do that second mass while the bishop does the graveside service, or vice versa?

Thoughts and suggestions?


Lee, Christina. Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals (Woodbridge:  Boydell, 2007).

Orchard, Nicholas, ed. The Leofric Missal, 2 vols. London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 2002.

Wilson, H. A., ed.  The Missal of Robert of Jumièges.  London:  Henry Bradshaw Society, 1896; repr. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1994.



  1. My main thought-and-suggestion is that the needs of the story override the need for “authenticity”; and that the ordines are prescriptive not descriptive (this may not be very helpful). Just got the final proofs for my next novel, by the way!
    Victoria x

  2. Yes, I was just exploring that issue of how ritual works with a colleague in anthropology. Although words and gestures are prescribed, how they are carried out would reflect the needs and context of the performers.
    On the other hand, I don’t want the need for drama in my story line to override common sense at the time. I could build drama creating association between the two rituals in the minds of the protagonists without having the two ceremonies contiguous in time (although perhaps contiguous in my narrative).

  3. I like your choice of godfather. I wonder if Deacon Aldred will evolve into Aldred-Good-Bishop who redeemed the congregation from the venality of Sexhelm’s regime.

    • You got it right, deacon Aldred will become good Bishop Aldred! I have a stub chapter dealing with the Sexhelm business. My Aldred (our Aldred?) may figure in it given his bad experience with Sexhelm at the Battle of Brunnanburh.

  4. Is it too early for placebo and dirige as well as mass?

    • Dirige and Placebo are both in the Romano-Germanic Pontifical but I am not seeing them in the index of liturgical forms of Anglo-Saxon service books I have checked thus far (still looking).
      However, at least in a religious community prayers for the dead during Vespers and Matins would occur.
      In this case, I have a dead layman lying overnight at an episcopal church, then transported to a manorial church where he again lies overnight before the funeral mass and burial the next day. So some kind of vigil would be taking place in both churches during the night, but I haven’t worked out what that would involve.

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