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 sacraments that Catholics receive at the end of their lives, especially ConfessionHoly Communion, and the Anointing of the Sick, and the prayers that accompany them. 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 usage 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.

Common Misspellings: Last Rights

Examples: "When a Catholic is in danger of death, it is important that a priest be notified so that he can receive the last rites and be properly reconciled to God before his death."

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.

That is why confession of one's sins, if the dying person is able to speak, is an essential part of last rites; having confessed his or her sins, he or she is absolved by the priest and receives the sacramental grace of Confession.

How Are the Last Rites Administered?

Depending on the circumstances—for instance, how close to death the dying person is, whether he or she can speak, and whether he or she is a Catholic in good standing with the Church—the ritual of last rites can vary from situation to situation.

The priest will begin with the Sign of the Cross and 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 can anoint 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.