Sing the Dies Irae at My Funeral – A Meditation on a Lost Treasure

by Mgr. Charles Pope

This week, for All Souls Day, I was given the grace to celebrate a Funeral (Walter Gallie, R.I.P.) in the Traditional Latin Form of the Mass. Referred to as a Requiem Mass, (Requiem means “rest” in Latin), it features black vestments and prayers steeped in consistent yet confident pleas for God’s mercy on the departed.

Though many depict the Requiem Mass as a gloomy affair, I beg to differ. Black vestments, to be sure, speak a different language than the white usually worn today, (though black or purple are permitted). But death, after all is a rather formal affair. And the readings for the Requiem on the day of burial are quite hopeful. The Epistle is from 1 Thessalonians 4, and begins, Brethren we would not have you ignorant concerning them that sleep in the Lord lest you be sorrowful like those having no hope…… The Gospel is Jesus’ discourse with Martha in John 11: Your brother will rise…do you believe this? Jesus then assures her that he is the resurrection and the life. Hardly gloomy. And all the pleas for mercy in the Requiem are based on hope expressed in these readings.

At the heart of the Requiem Mass is the astonishing and magnificent masterpiece, the Sequence Hymn, Dies Irae. Yes, I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is indeed the sequence hymn of the Requiem Mass, Dies Irae. It is almost never done at funerals today, though it remains a fixture of the Extraordinary form Mass.

Some see it as a “heavy” with its sobering message, but it sure is glorious. The gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant and many composers, such as Mozart and Verdi, set the text to stirring musical compositions. With November, the month of All souls perhaps this hymn deserves a look.

It’s syllables hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila! (Day of wrath that day when the world dissolves to ashes, David bearing witness along with the Sibyl!) Perhaps at times the text is a bit heavy but at the same time no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).

The hymn was not composed for funerals. Actually it was composed by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century as an Advent Hymn. Yes, that’s right an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas, it is about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.

Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will give you an inspiring English translation by W J Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin close enough. A few comments from me along the way but enjoy this largely lost masterpiece and mediation on the Last Judgment. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae)

The hymn opens on the Day of Judgement, warning that the Day, spoken of in Scripture as “The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord,”  will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s “wrath” is his passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end of wickedness and lies:

    • Day of wrath and doom impending,
    • Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
    • David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

And all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat of this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and will all of creation answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all:

    • Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
    • When from heaven the judge descendeth
    • On whose sentence all dependeth!
    • Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
    • Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
    • All before the throne it bringeth.
    • Death is struck and nature quaking,
    • All creation is awaking,
    • To its judge an answer making.
    • Lo the book exactly worded,
    • Wherein all hath been recorded,
    • Thence shall judgement be awarded.
    • When the Judge his seat attaineth,
    • And each hidden deed arraigneth:
    • Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Judgment shall be according to our deeds, whatever is in the Book (Rev 20:12; Romans 2:6)! Ah but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy and so our hymn turns to ponder the need for mercy and appeals to God for that mercy. It bases that hope on the grace and mercy of God, his incarnation, his seeking love, his passion and death, and his forgiveness shown to Mary Magdalene and the dying thief:

    • What shall I frail man be pleading?
    • Who for me be interceding?
    • When the just are mercy needing?
    • King of majesty tremendous,
    • Who does free salvation send us,
    • Font of pity then befriend us.
    • Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
    • Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
    • Leave me not to reprobation.
    • Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
    • On the cross of suffering bought me:
    • Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
    • Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
    • Grant thy gift of absolution,
    • Before the day of retribution.
    • Guilty now I pour my moaning:
    • All my shame and anguish owning:
    • Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.

    • Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    • Through the dying thief forgiven,
    • Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy and, pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary since for now we can call on that mercy. And, in the end it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. And so the hymn calls on the Lord who said, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37):

    • Worthless are my tears and sighing:
    • Yet good Lord in grace complying,
    • Rescue me from fire undying.
    • With thy sheep a place provide me,
    • From the goats afar divide me,
    • To thy right hand do thou guide me.
    • When the wicked are confounded,
    • Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
    • Call me with thy saints surrounded.
    • Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
    • See like ashes my contrition:
    • Help me in my last condition.

And now comes the great summation: That Day is surely coming! Grant me O lord your grace to be ready:

    • Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
    • from the dust of earth returning.
    • Man for judgement must prepare him,
    • Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
    • Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
    • Grant the dead eternal rest.

A masterpiece of beauty and truth if you ask me.

Some years ago I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant rings through the echoing arches of our Church.

When I die sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the Judge of all and only grace and mercy will see me through. Surely the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. And maybe the Lord will look at me and say,

    • I think they’re praying for you down there; asking mercy, they are.
    • “Yes, Lord, mercy.” (I reply)
    • They’re making a pretty good case.
    • Yes Lord, mercy.
    • Then mercy it shall be.

Amen.

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4 Responses to Sing the Dies Irae at My Funeral – A Meditation on a Lost Treasure

  1. Jacquelyn Taylor Baumberg says:

    “A masterpiece of beauty and truth”. Yes, indeed.

    Like

  2. toadspittle says:

    .
    Toad is considering asking to have “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” sung at his cremation.

    Like

  3. When I go it will be ‘Old Rite’ anyway, but a family member has asked that when they die, we have the Dies Irae at their ‘New Rite’ Funeral, and we will!

    Like

  4. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    I am sorry to tell you Mr. McCullough that it is my understanding that the Dies Irae was suppressed in the new rite. I do hold the hope that I am wrong on this but I do believe that to be the case.

    Like

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