Learn About Last Rites and How They're Performed

Last Rites
'Extreme Unction' by Marco Alvise Pitteri and Pietro Longhi (circa 1755). Marco Alvise Pitteri and Pietro Longhi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

"Last Rites" refers to the sacrament that Catholics receive at the end of their lives, specifically Confession, Holy Communion, and the Anointing of the Sick, and the prayers accompanying each. The phrase is less common today that it was in past centuries.

While last rites is sometimes used to refer to only one of the seven sacraments, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (also known just as the Sacrament of the Sick), that application is technically incorrect. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, previously known as Extreme Unction, is administered both to the dying and to those who are gravely ill or are about to undergo a serious operation, for the recovery of their health and for spiritual strength. The Anointing of the Sick is technically part of last rites rather than last rites itself.

The Origin of the Term

These final prayers and sacraments were collectively known as last rites because they were usually administered when the person receiving the sacraments was in grave danger of dying. The Church developed the ritual of last rites to prepare the soul of the dying person for death, and for the individual judgment to come. 

Confession of one's sins is an essential part of last rites; having confessed his or her sins, the dying person is absolved by the priest and receives the sacramental grace of Confession.

How Are the Last Rites Administered?

The ritual of last rites may vary from situation to situation--for instance, how close to death the confessor is, whether he or she is capable of speaking and whether he or she is a Catholic in good standing with the Church all weigh in what rites an individual may be entitled to receive. 

The priest will begin with the Sign of the Cross, then either administer the Sacrament of Confession (if the person is Catholic, conscious, and able to speak) or lead the person in an Act of Contrition (something non-Catholics can take part in, as well as those who cannot speak).

The priest will then lead the dying person in the Apostles' Creed or in the renewal of his or her baptismal promises (again, depending on whether the person is conscious). Non-Catholics can take part in this aspect of last rites as well. 

At this point, the priest anoints the dying person, using the form of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick for Catholics or a simple anointing with holy oil or chrism for non-Catholics. 

After reciting the Our Father, the priest will then offer Communion to the dying Catholic (assuming he or she is conscious). This final Communion is referred to as viaticum or food for the journey into the next life. The ritual of last rites concludes with a final blessing and prayers.​