Catholic Funeral Traditions


A Catholic funeral, like all funerals, is a time of sadness and mourning. However, in the Catholic faith there's joy in the belief that a funeral represents the passing of the beloved into eternal life. The Catholic Church has many traditions concerning funerals and funeral preparation, though some of these traditions are in dispute or are falling out of favor.

At the time of death, the church parish may be contacted before a funeral home is called. Some Catholics will opt out of conventional funeral home services in favor of Roman Catholic services. You can be sure that the Roman Catholic Church will handle the funeral with utmost respect for the deceased and the grieving family. A priest and other church figures will minister to the grieving friends and family in whatever ways are needed.

The Catholic Funeral Rites, which in their entirety are more correctly called the Rite of Christian Burial, are intended to serve the needs of the bereaved for comfort, closure and peace.

The Rite of Christian Burial

A traditional Catholic funeral follows a specific order:

  1. The Vigil
  2. The Funeral Mass
  3. Rite of Committal

These are followed by an informal gathering after the burial. Important prayers and scriptures are included.  Catholic funeral rites must take place in the proper order and with required prayers and scriptures, but some choices among valid scriptures and hymns are allowed. When the Funeral Mass does not allow the time for or choice of a particular song or reading, they may be used during the vigil instead.

The Vigil

Sometimes called the wake or the Rosary, the vigil is held the night before the Requiem Mass. It includes readings from sacred scripture, songs, psalms, and intercessory prayer. Eulogies and/or the rosary may be said. A priest, deacon, or layperson may preside at this liturgy or religious ceremony. During this time, mourners often make votive offerings, commonly lighting votive candles, to demonstrate devotion and pray for divine favor for the deceased.  Often, a family member or friend will speak about the deceased.

The Vigil may take place in a funeral home, at the home of the deceased, or at the parish church. The Vigil offers mourners and those who may not be able to attend the funeral an opportunity for prayer and to remember the deceased.

Flowers are acceptable at the wake, but the quantity should be moderated. Roses, chrysanthemums, carnations, and lilies are all good funeral flower choices as they have religious representations. Similarly, white flowers are often chosen to represent purity and reverence. A rosary or cross of flowers may be placed in the casket with the deceased or adorn the casket.

The Funeral Mass

The Funeral Mass is celebrated much as any regular mass. The Eucharist is almost always performed. This is the ceremony at the center of the Catholic faith - the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the homily is always to explain the words of the gospel reading just shared and make a meaningful connection between the Gospel message and the loss of a loved one. Prayer also plays a prominent role in the Catholic funeral service, along with songs, hymns and a brief message. However, almost any aspect of the service can be left out, if it is the wish of the family.

To begin, the priest arrives and sprinkles baptismal water on the casket as the congregation chants, Kyrie Eleison, or “Lord have mercy.” The Introit (entrance) is then made. The casket is brought to the altar while the congregation sings. The casket may be carried by pallbearers or placed on a wheeled table with pallbearers at the side. A popularly chosen hymn for this entrance is Attende Domine.

The Collect (short prayer) is then given, followed by the Epistle. The Epistle is usually I Thessalonians 4:13-18, but can be a reading of other New Testament epistles. Next, The Gradual, or a pair of verses from the Psalms, is read. This is followed by the Gospel, commonly a reading of John 11:21-27. The Offertory prayer is made and an offertory hymn such as, I Heard the Voice of Jesus, is sung. The Secret is said by the priest at the end of the Offertory. Communion is then served, as the “Eternal Rest” prayer is repeated, and We Have Been Told is sung. Finally, the casket is taken out of the church as the choir sings In Paradisum. The congregation sings Salve Regina as the clergy and choir exit. The procession forms and the body is carried to the place of burial.

The Rite of Committal

After the Funeral Mass, the Rite of Committal takes place at a cemetery chapel, a mausoleum or at the graveside. This rite is a gathering to prayer and a final committal of the remains of the deceased. It offers a form of closure and solace to the family and other mourners. Catholics are encouraged to arrange burial in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery. Family members who follow other religions may be buried alongside a loved one in a Catholic cemetery.

After burial, it is common for the family of the deceased to invite mourners to an informal gathering at someone's home with food.

Related questions on Catholic Funerals:

Who may receive the Rite?

According to the funeral order all Catholics are entitled to ministry by the Church at the time of death. A baptized non-Catholic who desires a church funeral is also permitted to receive the rite.  Traditionally, Catholic funerals are denied to the unbaptized, infidels, heretics, suicides, the excommunicated, the schismatic, those under ecclesiastical censure and those who, without remorse, have openly held the sacraments in contempt.

Can Catholics be cremated?

While the Catholic Church did not used to accept cremation as a form of disposition, the Church today does allow and accept cremation. The 1983 Code of Canon Law (1176. 3) now reads, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.” If there is a cremation, it will almost always take place after the funeral service.

Is there a common funeral prayer?

Catholic Prayer for the Dead

God our Father,
Your power brings us to birth,
Your providence guides our lives,
and by Your command we return to dust.

Lord, those who die still live in Your presence,
their lives change but do not end.
I pray in hope for my family,
relatives and friends,
and for all the dead known to You alone.

In company with Christ,
Who died and now lives,
may they rejoice in Your kingdom,
where all our tears are wiped away.
Unite us together again in one family,
to sing Your praise forever and ever.

Amen.

Do I have to be Catholic to be buried in a Catholic cemetery?

No. Although funeral rites are denied to non-Catholics, burial in a cemetery is permitted. This is so families of differing faiths may be kept together in death as in life.

Can a Catholic be buried somewhere other than a Catholic cemetery?

It is Catholic belief that the body will one day be resurrected. Therefore, it is ideal for a Catholic to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, where they will rise with other followers of the same faith. Catholic cemeteries are blessed by priests. However, a Catholic does have the choice to be buried wherever they would like.

September 20, 2018

By Rachel Schnebly