Room Blessings

It is the normal practice of a hospital to bless a room (or an operating theatre) after a death. Usually the chaplains do this, though at night it is often done by a member of staff using holy water and prayers provided by the chaplains.

At a room blessing the person who has died will be commended to God and the room blessed with the sign of the cross and holy water, with the prayer that it will be cleansed of all that is destructive to the human spirit and be a place of love, peace and healing to all who use it (patients, relatives and staff).

Modern hospitals are places of huge technical sophistication. But all this technical expertise is intended to be a servant of the human qualities of compassion, care and respect for the human pilgrim in this life and beyond it.

To be in the place of death is to stand in a mysterious place. The hopes and disappointments, the achievements and failures, the dreams and despair of this human life have entered a new state of being. A human person, conceived and borne through childhood in love (mostly, thank God) formed, challenged and shaped through all the changes and chances of a unique life, has gone to God.

Does the human heart allow us just to wrap up the body, take it away and simply get on with the next task which falls to hand? Of course not.

In the Maori understanding death is tapu. It takes us into an experience which is above and beyond the ordinary. This room, which has become tapu, a holy place, needs to be returned to its ordinary, normal use, from tapu to noa, by a deliberate act which acknowledges the significance of what has taken place. Maori custom expresses a universal psychological truth.

Christians have always blessed places, too. With the sign of the cross and the sprinkling with holy water Christ’s victory over death, and the eternal cleansing and new birth of baptism, are proclaimed. When, at a time of death, we pray “Our Father in heaven” we also mean “Our Father in this room”, acknowledging the One who has stood and received his child into his fatherly embrace in this place. In the blessing of a room after a death we acknowledge God’s presence and action as well as our own sense of mystery and awe in the face of something so profound and so full of “otherness”, at once so fearful and so hopeful.