The sacraments are for the living (sacramenta sunt propter hominem) and therefore cannot be administered to the dead. They were given to the Church by Jesus to confer grace at the different stages of life.
Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation are collectively the sacraments of initiation of new beginning. Eucharist is encouraged to be taken throughout life as food for the soul. Just as you need physical food to grow and be strong and healthy, the soul needs the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus to remain spiritually healthy.
The sacraments of healing, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick (collectively, the sacraments of mercy) are also important during the various stages of life. When the soul is sick through sin, reception of the sacrament of Penance is administered to heal it. When the body is infirm, it receives the sacrament of the Anointing to pray for both spiritual and bodily healing.
The sacraments of vocations are Holy Orders and marriage. They go hand in hand. Married couples support priests by the way they witness to Christ in the world through their vows. Priests dispense the mysteries of God through the sacraments to help married couples become holy and bring forth children and to educate them in the Catholic faith.
None of the sacraments can be given to a person who is deceased. But what constitutes death? Is it when the heart stops? When there is no more brainwave activity? Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth-century theologian, argued that one can be reasonably certain that the soul remains in the body while the body is still warm.
It is Catholic teaching that death is the separation of the soul from the body. Signs that the soul has left the body are rigor mortis (stiffening of the joints) and putrefaction (the decaying of flesh). As long as rigor mortis has not set in, the body is still warm, and there is no odor of decay, then the sacrament of Penance and Anointing of the Sick can be administered conditionally with the words, “If you are alive, I conditionally absolve you of your sins….”
On the other hand, if the body is cold to the touch, then in the anointing ritual there are special prayers for the dead that are read aloud, which are comforting to those who are still alive and around the deceased. But once death has taken place, the corpse can only be blessed and prepared for Christian burial; sacraments, like Anointing, can only be given while the soul is in the body, that is, while the person is still alive. Absolution or forgiveness of sin can only take place while there is still life in the body. At the moment of death, particular judgment takes place and the soul goes directly to heaven, hell, or purgatory.
Since the sacraments are for the living, no one should ever wait to call a priest until death is imminent or has already come. Rather, the priest should be informed during the person’s illness so that the sacraments can be administered and he can be spiritually prepared to meet his Lord when he is called home in death.
How much more comforting, to the sick person who has experienced the Lord throughout the illness, to be called by Him at the end. Death is not so frightening.