Catholic Funerals express the Christian hope in eternal life and the resurrection of the body on the last day. Every component of Catholic funeral rites should express these fundamental beliefs and hopes. Instead of what is sometimes called “a celebration of life”, a funeral is really a privileged opportunity to return to God the gift of the deceased, hoping to usher them into paradise with the aid of our prayers. Our love for the departed is expressed after death, above all else, in our prayers for them.
Death is a new beginning for Christians. “In the face of death, the Church confidently proclaims that God has created each person for eternal life and that Jesus, the Son of God, by his death and resurrection, had broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity.” (Order of Christian Funerals)
Burial or Cremation?
One of the first decisions to be made is whether the deceased will be buried or cremated. The Church’s tradition prefers burial over cremation. However, cremation is allowed, so long as the option is not chosen to express anything contrary to the hope of the resurrection of the body. More and more families are opting for cremation today with hopes to decrease funeral expenses.
In either case, a place of burial needs to be chosen. Bodies are to be disposed of in a fitting and dignified way, consonant with the human dignity that should be afforded everyone, as we are made in the image of God. Cremains must be buried-not placed in the home, spread on land or sea, etc. Burial at sea is also permitted, so long as the body or cremains are in a sealed container (not spread openly.)
In cases of burial, choices regarding attire should recall the respect to be shown toward the body. Consideration should be given to display some Christian symbols in or near the casket at the time of a wake or to be buried with the deceased, such as a crucifix, rosary, or Bible.
Mass or Not?
It is preferable that a funeral Mass be celebrated in the presence of the body of the deceased, but it is not required. As the Order of Christian Funerals states, “The Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral.” A family member or friend of the deceased can choose two readings, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.
If a funeral Mass is not chosen, it is desirable that a memorial Mass should be scheduled for the deceased’s intention at a later date. If Mass is not chosen, a funeral liturgy of the Word and final commendation of the deceased is celebrated. These may be conducted at the church, the funeral home, in a chapel at the cemetery, or even at the graveside.
Vigil for the Deceased
Wakes, or viewing, are opportunities for family and friends to come together, console one another, and recall the impact the deceased had on them. Wakes find their origins in the Christian celebration of vigils, often associated with major events or feasts. The vigil for the dead is intended to be dedicated to prayer for the deceased. The Church supplies a liturgical rite for wakes to be celebrated by a sacred minister of the Church; it may be celebrated by a lay minister in some cases. This is a combination of readings, a brief homily or reflection, and prayers. The wake also is a time for popular devotions that might have been particularly significant in the faith life of the deceased, such as the Rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet. Another option for the wake is to celebrate the Office of the Dead from the Liturgy of the Hours-the Church’s daily prayer, composed of psalms, readings, and prayers.
Numerous symbols are employed in Catholic funerals, such as:
Holy Water: A reminder of the deceased’s membership in the body of Christ through baptism. Holy water is used to welcome the body or cremains into the church and at the time of final commendation.
Easter candle: The Easter, or Paschal, candle reminds Christians of Christ’s presence among us. Blessed each year at the Easter Vigil, the presence of the candle at a funeral reminds the assembly of that night, when in hope, the Church anticipates Christ’s resurrection.
Pall: It is customary in the United States and other places to place a white cloth over the casket or cremains, called a pall. This is another reminder of baptism-when each of the baptized receives a white garment that signifies their dignity. The pall also symbolizes that each person is equal in the eyes of an all-loving and merciful Father.
Book of Gospels or Bible: Christians model their lives on the Word of God, and so it might be appropriate to place a Bible or Book of Gospels atop the casket or near the cremains during the funeral Mass. It reminds the assembly that fidelity to the Word in this life leads to newness of life in eternity.
Cross: A cross or crucifix may be placed atop the casket or near the cremains during the funeral Mass. This reminds us of the primary Chrisitan symbol with which we were signed at baptism and by which Christ redeemed the world and won victory over sin and death.
Incense: Incense serves as a twofold purpose in the funeral rites: to show respect for the deceased’s body-which became a temple of the Holy Spirit in baptism-and to represent the prayers of the assembly on the deceased’s behalf, rising to God’s throne.
Flowers: Flowers may be used “in moderation”(OCF).
Liturgical color: For funeral Masses in the United States, the sacred ministers may wear white, violet, or black vestments. The liturgical color chosen for funerals should express Christian hope but should not be offensive to human grief or sorrow”(OCF). This is the choice of the sacred minister.
The readings from Scripture “provide the family and community with an opportunity to hear God speak to them in their needs, sorrows, fears, and hopes”(OCF). There are four readings for a Catholic funeral. The readings should be one each from the Old and New Testaments(though during the Easter season both readings come from the New Testament) in addition to a Gospel passage. There is also a psalm which is usually sung.