Extrem Unction Box

Extrem Unction Box

In the Catholic religion, one of two rites which could be performed by a layperson, at least when these boxes were being produced, was Extrem Unction, or Last Rites. This is the ritual performed just before death. It involves candles, holy water and oils and the taking of communion whenever possible. The image of the Last Supper (upon which Holy Communion is allegorically based) opens on this box to reveal the needed accessories, including brass candleholders that affix to the brass angels you can see on the outside, candles and a silver tray. It measures 33.5 cm x 58.5 cm and is 9.5 cm deep. circa 1900.

This Extrem Unction Box, or my Last Rites Kit as I like to call it, hangs up in my house along with other religious memorabilia in a predominant location. I've had it in the house for just over ten years now, and there is nothing I enjoy more than having new friends, neighbors and acquaintances come into the house and notice it. It's large so it can barely be ignored. After all it contains the plaster figures of Mary holding a post-crucified bleeding Jesus.

The reason I like having people notice it is because I find it interesting and amusing to see what they will say about it, if anything at all. There are those who totally ignore its presence. Some people politely acknowledge it, suddenly assuming I am a fervent Christian and edge toward the door. I suppose they are afraid I might have a handy pile of tracts nearby, or invite them to a Bible study. Sometimes I smile at the possibility they might be quietly pulling a mutual friend aside to whisper, "Did you know Laurel was so religious??"

There are those who take an intellectual view of it and make inquiries as to its purpose. These I enjoy because I lapse into a detailed description of its intent, opening the little door and showing them the brass candle holders and the silver tray. I describe it in total ernestness with as much academic slant as possible. Pointing out a fine bit of craftsmanship here and there, drawing their attention to the rich oak grain. All this without revealing anything of my own belief structure. I can sense them wanting to ask me "Are you Catholic?" But they almost never do.

Then there are always those people who burst into peals of laughter. While most have never seen such an artifact before, it's pretty recognizable as a symbol of Catholicism, after all, the figures are there in all their plaster splendor.

This usually lends itself to the sharing of religious stories, particularly from those who are Catholic. I have friends who say they are recovering Catholics, but I have to say I didn't have enough influence from the Church to make me feel the need to recover from anything. I can remember my own Baptism, I think I was around age 7.

My mom who was Irish Catholic had married my dad, who's family was Scottish Presbyterian. It hadn't gone well on either side, but the Diocese gave them permission to marry if the children were raised Catholic. True to her word, my mom held out and family lore says she even suggested divorce if this promise to the Church was not kept.

So there we were being Baptised in childhood instead of infancy. Better late than never I guess. I made my First Communion, at my Mom's insistence, as a young teenager instead of the usual grade 2. Then I was on to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, translation, religious classes). I was actually looking forward to CCD classes, because my friends at school had told me how they held great dances and skating parties a couple of times a month.

The second or third CCD meeting though I was nabbed for passing a note to a boy. The real problem was that the classes were separated by gender and the boys were in the next room, although the next room was really just on the other side of one of those old accordian-style room dividers. So it was easy enough, I thought, to just lean over and slide the note under the wall. But the nun on the other side of the divider got the note instead of the boy.

She called my mother in and while I never heard the details from my mother, the upshot was that the Nun told her my religious education had been initiated too late, and I could pretty much plan on going to hell. That is, unless I was willing to read the stack of books the nun gave her that day. I took one look at the books and that ended my religious education. Not for want of my Mom trying though, I give her credit for her persistence. A few times a year my mom would ask me if I had read them. "Not yet," I would always respond.

For years I had those books on my bookshelves, symbols of my future doom, serving as an important reminder:

"Never pass a personal note to an unknown recipient."

© Laurel O'Donnell, 1996-8, all rights reserved
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Laurel O'Donnell
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