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

Yesterday, 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.

Dies Irae from elena mannocci on Vimeo.

30 Replies to “Sing the Dies Irae at My Funeral – A Meditation on a Lost Treasure”

  1. I hope you have all this written down somewhere, from beginning to the end how you want it to go. I’ll be too old to put up a fuss about it if it doesn’t go right. And we both know I can fuss. Hopefully at 80 if the Lord wills it I’ll have more prayers for you and you for me.We both will need plenty of mercy. (LOL). Your faithful servant JJ.

  2. An historical note:

    The sequence Dies irae was originally written for the Last Sunday after Pentecost (Sunday Next before Advent), which before the Tridentine reform figured the Return of Christ and the Last Judgement, even as Advent prepared for His first coming.

    I don’t know how or when it got associated with Requiem masses.

  3. No funeral Mass would be *for me* if it lacked the Dies Irae. A funeral without the Dies Irae would be *in spite of* me if it lacked the Dies Irae.

    (If the Latin is impossible, at least sing the English!)

  4. I want this at my funeral Mass too. I am going to put in writing. My mother is very ill (pray for her) and I fear my siblings will insist on Eagle’s Wings. Sigh.

  5. I thought “Gather Us In” is the song that the Cherubim and Seraphim will sing at the Last Judgment.

  6. John,

    It saddens me to say, but at my grandfather’s funeral this exact thing happened. The music director at the parish decided for whatever reason to replace songs he disliked with “happier” ones. Of course this meant playing ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ during the reception of the Eucharist. While I was livid, I had to laugh because for nearly a decade my stubborn outspoken Scottish grandpa railed against the appalling music at his parish. Even at his funeral the fight went on.

  7. Come hell or high water, when I die, I want a Requiem Mass said, even if I have to have my body taken elsewhere to have it! As for the “Dies Irae”, even if I didn’t know the person who died very well, as soon as I hear that song, I cry. It is a most beautiful hymn, and the Requiem Mass can’t be beat.
    Monsignor, your article was wonderful, and I thank you for it. God bless you!

  8. Monsignor,

    I remember this from many years ago as a young altar boy at Requiem Masses and always dreamed of having one said for my soul in black vestments and the Dies Irae sung for me. I sometimes listen to the Mozart Requiem and the strains of this hymn move deeply into my soul. I, like you, pray that I too may have this sung at my funeral Mass! May it please God…!

    Were I to have an epitaph carved on my tombstone, these are the lines I’d choose:

    “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,
    Do thy right hand do thou guide me.”

  9. Bought my burial plot and a tombstone last Friday, and one of the choices for an inscription was a picture of grapes. I didn’t choose this saying it reminded me of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Steinbeck, I think. Now after reading this, maybe I could have been a bit more informed. Would like to know more and if the quote comes from scripture and what its meaning is there. You mention it above. But I guess I’ve already made my choice, and so it will be a celtic cross with love written on it. Thanks for this post. Dies Ira has long been a favorite hymn of mine. I presume it is the Mozart one? that is the first rendition. Like this one the best.

  10. We had High Mass for Our Souls Day and the music for it was Gabriel Faure Requiem. So, so beautiful. And the text to Dies Irae gets to me every time now … I want this sung for my funeral too.

  11. For me, this is the quintessential Catholic hymn. I learned it as a child and it was one of the ways God used his grace to bring me back to the faith. How did we get to a place where it is considered acceptable to have ‘My Way’ played at a Catholic — or any! — funeral?

  12. I too want a Requiem Mass and, if possible, I want it sung and in Latin. Long ago I was told that the Gregorian music is some of the earliest that we have in the Church and it probably comes from the Church in North Africa in about the second century. It lacks the ornamentation found in later centuries being very simple in style and very beautiful.

  13. I know almost the entire chant in Latin by heart. I have trouble remembering the last verse or two. Same thing with the Adoro Te Devote… good old Thomas.

  14. My dad was thrilled when he learned that he could have a Requiem Mass for his funeral provided by the FSSP in Dallas. He died in 2009 at age 88 and gravely missed the Traditional Latin Mass.

  15. Dies Irae at your funeral, Beautiful. But why such sarcasm for appropriate songs for which others feel a strong connection. My single wish at my funeral is “We Will Rise Again” by David Haas.

  16. I want confessions to be heard at my wake-wouldn’t that be amazing!!! Not in the same room with my remains of course. Has anyone ever seen this done before?

  17. I also relish the Dies Irae, and have come to enjoy the Latin language and its use in the Liturgy. I think in our culture we have little appreciation for language/languages, and have slipped into poor usage, slang, gutter talk, etc., without realizing the negative impact this has in society. I hope the new translation helps to turn the tide!

  18. At my wife’s funeral, “Safety Harbor” was the processional and “It’s a Brand New Day” was the recessional. … from sadness to joy. … from death to life.

  19. Joseph touched on a sore topic with me. Many people who sing in traditional choirs, or who have been immersed in Gregorian chant and classical music HAVE DISDAIN FOR anyone who has never been exposed to it or learned the Latin or had an opportunity to accustom their ear to it. I find it extremely hateful and ironic, considering these Chant-lovers have meditated so much on God’s mercy. What if I want “Jesus Loves Me,” sung at my funeral? Where does arrogance, superiority, unkindness, and mercilessness fit in with all of the incredible messages of Gregorian Chant?

    1. I understand your frustration here. Perhaps some of the remarks have strayed beyond what I would call “light banter” rooted in a kind of frustration with the ubiquitous nature of certain songs. Preference is one thing, but arrogance and the wholesale dismissal of certain genres is, as you say, unkind, and unnecessary. It is possible for us to celebrate what we like without panning what others like. Thanks for the reminder.

  20. I would hope that the object of disdain is the music and not those who ‘appreciate’ it.

    Music can be placed, from the Church’s perspective in four categories – Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, ‘religious’ music and secular music. Those who raise questions about the attitudes of those who favour music in the first and second categories seem to ask ‘what is wrong with the music in the third category?’. To state the problem in this way is to state the answer. It is the Church’s third choice – and not for liturgical functions. Even within the third category there is a hierarchy.

    I do not hold people who like the music in the third category in disdain but that does not mean that they should not be aware that this music is the third level of music in the Church’s hierarchy of music. (I happen to like a lot of music in the fourth category which can itself be broken down into differing sub-categories. I willingly admit that some of the secular music I enjoy is not at the top of the aesthetic secular music heirarchy).

    This hierarchy of music is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116). Third and lower category music is not ‘the singing of the Mass’ or any other prescribed liturgy but ‘singing at’ Mass. It is by its very nature something less than the first two categories of music and, dare I say it, a lesser ‘active participation’ in the Mass.

    The issue arose shortly after the Council. The Consilium (the body established by Paul VI to ‘undertake’ the reform) was asked about the use of music which was not the text of the Mass. Its response is set out in Susan Benofy’s article (which originally appeared in the Adoremus bulletin):

    Begin quote:
    “”Abandoning the traditional music and texts of the Mass was clearly not the intention of the Council, whose Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), decreed that “the treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (SC 114). This principle was further clarified in 1969 by the Consilium (the group of bishops and experts set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy), who responded to an inquiry on whether the permission for singing vernacular hymns at a low Mass — given in the instruction De musica sacra et sacra liturgia of September 3, 1958 — was still in effect. (Before the Council the hymns sung at low Mass did not replace the prescribed Mass texts, but were an addition to them, and were considered only an “indirect” form of participation.)

    “”The Consilium’s response was very clear:

    “That rule [permitting vernacular hymns] has been superseded. What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something”, no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.”

    (Original emphasis. The response was published in Italian in the Consilium’s official journal Notitiae 5 [1969] p. 406. An English translation appeared in the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy’s BCL Newsletter, August-September 1993.)””
    End of quote.
    See: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=7939&CFID=3469171&CFTOKEN=68683806

    Clearly the Church is not favourable, to say the least, to singing words during Mass which are not the texts of the Mass.

    It is also necessary to distinguish between what my personal preferences are in music from what the Church teaches us about music especially music which is to form part of the liturgy.

    To whose who are unfamiliar with the Church’s higher music (this may apply, unfortunately, particularly to bishops, priests and liturgists) there is a plethora of resources on the internet, in libraries and book and music stores to assist in your learning.

    John Ashley
    Dartmouth, NS
    Canada

  21. The replies are both interesting and spirited. I realize that a lg number of folks are fans of “wings of angels” based on the many funerals I’ve attended…. but it is so very encouraging that many do love and understand the Dies Irae that I spent 7 yrs singing in choir at funerals and dearly hope will be sung at mine.

    There are many good things about tradition that need not destroy those who feel differently. The Church is yet embracing all of us, but even those of us who love things such as the Latin Mass are sadly served in the Midwest …. perhaps I need to be sure that I die in DC so that my funeral has a chance of being done by the Mnsgr. …. another pet peeve … I am not gonna “pass” … I shall DIE (my body, that is – God decides about my soul) … I think the whole “pass” thing implies something else entirely (and does remind me of getting a hall pass at Dominican HS)! Thanks for the always thought provoking Blog!

  22. As a 12 year old altar boy, this chant was burned into my psyche at every requiem mass at which I served. The haunting melody and words sung in latin, I will never forget. It WILL be sung at my funeral mass. Also, Samuel Barber’s Adagio, as it is one of my favorite classical pieces. I cannot hear it without bring tears to my eyes as I think of my friends that did not return with me from the war in Vietnam. No, “On Eagles Wings” for me.

  23. It is interesting to me that this music was not originally intended for funerals. The name itself, “Day of Wrath,” reinforces that it is not appropriate for a funeral, its beauty and tradition notwithstanding.

    I believe we have not spent enough catechetical time reminding the faithful that there will indeed be a Day of the Lord — a Day of Wrath — but I don’t think a funeral is the best time or place to do that. When I bury my mother I would prefer not to be reminded that she might be experiencing the wrath of God. On that day I would prefer to focus on the mercy of God. Such an attitude does not mean I do not believe in the wrath of God, or the reality of His judgment. It just means that at that moment I will want the comfort of seeking His mercy, which is equally real and is a teaching of the Church. As with so many things Catholic, it isn’t either/or; it’s both/and, and there is a time and place for everything. That is why we do not fast on Christmas Day, even if it falls on a Friday.

    In summary, I think it is liturgically inappropriate, if not incorrect, to use this for a funeral, regardless of the personal preference of the deceased, his family, or the music director. Liturgy is not about personal preferences. Let’s bring back the Dies Irae, and let’s do it when it was originally intended and most appropriate: Advent.

  24. Dear Monsignor:

    Asking Dies Irae to be sung at full force at your funeral sound a little bit, hmmm, self-aggrandizing. No?

    I am at the moment in the process of selecting songs for my Dad’s Requiem Mass, and, of course, Dies Irae has to be sung. He was born in 1930, before the Vatican II. My Dad is gravely ill and can depart anytime.

    But if we were to follow his wish, nothing will be sung at all! His written instruction in his living will is that when he dies, his remain is to be buried promptly, without pomp and at night…..!
    Now, my mother would never let that happen, as she has always been living glamorously! “What’s the point being married to a prince if he would be buried like a lowly peasant?”, was my mother’s argument.

    So, instead of being sung at full force, how about if the Dies Irae being read solemnly, in Latin? Something simpler, something pre-13th century (before this famous Dies Irae, obviously), something that could have been done at Eleanor d’Aquitaine’s funeral at the Abbey of Fontevraud.

    1. Sounds like you have father-wound issues that have little to do with my wishes to have the dies irae sung. No need to project your issues on to me. As for “self-aggrandizing” here’s a couple of lines from the song you may wish to recall:

      What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
      Who for me be interceding,
      when the just are mercy needing?

      Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
      all my shame with anguish owning;
      spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning!

      Maybe you should consider your Father’s wishes and pray as he asks rather than complain about him.

      Finally the Dies Irae can be chanted in toto in 5 minutes. Is that so much to ask?

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