Last Rites and the Presence of the Soul


A few books I’ve read on the assassination of President Kennedy mention that his wife was upset by the idea that his soul had passed on without receiving the Sacrament of Anointing or Last Rites. However the Priest who ultimately did administer the Sacrament comforted her with the assurance that one’s soul actually lingers with the body for several hours before moving on. I’ve heard this idea expressed in a few other contexts as well.

Is this an actual teaching of the Church? Have Any Catholic Theologians or the Saints discussed it? Or is it more of a folklore-y type thing?

'Stipendia enim peccati, mors. Gratia autem Dei, vita æterna, in Christo Jesu Domino nostro."

–Letter to the Romans, chapter 6, verse 23


It is not a Church teaching. We simply do not know when the soul leaves the body. Any opinion would be speculation.


Long ago, probably when I was in college [pre-VII], this came up in a group discussion with a priest. As I recall, he said one could not be certain that the soul had left the body until rigor mortis set in. [As I recall that was also the guideline for how long to continue artificial respiration at that time.]

I don’t know how official that was, and expect that it is overly conservative. However, I expect that a priest would rather err by anointing after the soul had left, than to take any chance of depriving someone of the sacrament when it was valid.


That’s correct. Rigor mortis is really the first sure sign that the soul has left.


When my dad died, I was shocked at how quickly his body turned cold. I knew without a doubt that his soul had departed.


This is what it states in my moral theology book from the 50s. With regards to Extreme Unction (which is what it was called at the time)

According to medical science an apparent death precedes actual death. A person dying after a long illness may be anointed within about half an hour after he has drawn his last breath; anointing may be done as long as two or three hours after sudden death


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