Les Enluminures

7. Office of the Dead

The Office of the Dead was in the back of every Book of Hours the way death itself was always at the back of the medieval mind (the Office usually followed the Penitential Psalms and Litany).

To understand the function of this service we should recall its old name, Office for the Dead. It was the cause of considerable anguish for medieval men and women to think of the potentially long periods of time their relatives would spend in the painful fires of purgatory. Along with the funding of funerary Masses, praying the Office was considered the most efficacious means of reducing this fiery price of obtaining paradise. These aids were essential, because only the living could help the dead.

The Office of the Dead consists of the three Hours of Vespers, Matins, and Lauds. Vespers was ideally prayed in church over the coffin on the evening before the funeral Mass. It was either recited or chanted by monks hired specially for that purpose by the deceased's family or confraternity. Matins and Lauds were then prayed, again by monks paid for this service, on the morning of the funeral itself. Funerals, however, were not the only time the Office was prayed. The tradition that required the ordained to recite the Office on a daily basis also encouraged the laity to pray it at home as often as possible. Whatever the setting, the purpose was always the same: to get one's dearly departed out of purgatory and into heaven as soon as possible.

The Office is not to be confused with the text of the funeral Mass or that of the rite of burial. Quite different from the Office, these are to be found in two service books used by the priest, respectively, the Missal and the Ritual. Like other Offices, this one is composed mostly of Psalms, and these offer comfort to the dead.

The more remarkable component of the Office of the Dead, however, is a moving series of readings from the Old Testament Book of Job that make up the nine lessons for Matins. The trials endured by Job become an allegory for one's time on earth--or in purgatory. Thus the “I” of the readings ceases to be Job, ceases even to be the person reading the Office and, instead, becomes the voice of the dead man himself, crying for help.

Pity and mercy are continually asked for throughout the lessons, but through a veil of near despair. The first lesson (Job 7:16-21) begins: “Spare me, O Lord, for my days are nothing.” The second lesson (Job 10:1-7) asks, “Tell me why thou judgest me so? Doth it seem good to thee that thou shouldest calumniate me, and oppress me, the work thy own hands?” The third lesson (Job 10:8-12) repeats this existential question, “Thy hands have made me and fashioned me wholly round about. And dost thou thus cast me down headlong on a sudden?” In the fourth lesson (Job 13:22-28), the forlorn voice demands, “Make me know my crimes and offences”; in the fifth (Job 14:1-6), it bemoans, “Man, born of woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries. Who cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow...”; and in the sixth (Job 14:13-16), asks, “Who will grant me this, that thou mayest protect me in hell, and hide me till thy wrath pass, and appoint me a time when thou wilt remember me?” In desperation, the voice of the seventh lesson (Job 17:1-3, 11-15) laments, “I have said to rottenness: thou art my father; to worms, my mother and my sister.” It is not until the end of the eighth lesson (Job 19:20-27) that a note of hope is sounded, “For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin: and in my flesh I shall see my God.” But this glimmer is short-lived, and the last lesson (Job 10:18-22) asks the final question, ”Why didst thou bring me forth out of the womb?... I should have been as if I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave.” Like the tolling of a funeral bell, the Office of the Dead ends:

Eternal rest grant them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine on them.
V. From the gates of hell,
R. Deliver their souls, O Lord.
V. May they rest in peace,
R. Amen.

Like the Hours of the Virgin, the Office of the Dead varied according to different towns and regions: this is what is known as “use” (the use of Rome, the use of Paris, the use of Rouen, or indeed the use of the Dominicans, etc.). Different responses follow each of the nine readings from the Book of Job, depending on the “use.” It is not uncommon for a Book of Hours to follow one use for the Hours of the Virgin and a different one for the Office of the Dead. No online sources exist yet for identifying the use of the Office of the Dead.