Catholic Funeral Traditions

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According to the Order of Christian Funerals #4, “At the death of a Christian…the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end nor does it break the bonds forged in life. The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the sacrament of the Eucharist.” The three main rituals in a Catholic funeral are the vigil, the funeral liturgy, and the rite of committal.

What happens at a Catholic funeral

The Catholic funeral process begins with a wake or prayer vigil that usually takes place the evening before the funeral liturgy. Under the leadership of a priest or lay minister, friends and relatives gather (at the family home, the funeral home, or the church where the mass will be held) and have the chance to celebrate their loved one’s life and offer personal prayers and reflections.

The next day, mourners gather at the local parish church, where an officiating priest receives the coffin or ashes of the deceased and celebrates the funeral liturgy, in which hymns, psalms, and readings celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death. Family members of the deceased who are not priests or deacons are encouraged to serve as lectors (who present readings during the funeral), musicians, ushers, and pallbearers. If the liturgy includes Mass, the priest offers a Eucharistic Prayer and offers Catholic mourners Holy Communion in the form of a wafer and a sip of wine.

The Catholic funeral process concludes with the rite of committal at a gravesite, mausoleum, or columbarium, where—with the guidance of a priest, deacon, or layperson—friends and family have an opportunity to eulogize and offer parting prayers, and the body of the deceased is committed to its final resting place.

Planning a Catholic funeral

When a Catholic dies, his or her family should call that person’s priest. While the funeral mass isn’t customizable at all, the family can work with the priest to choose scriptural readings and hymns.

A funeral director will help the family determine whether their deceased loved one is to be buried or cremated, whether the funeral is to be held at a church, cemetery, or crematorium, and to make additional plans. The funeral director will prepare the body and transport it to the wake or funeral sites.

Frequently asked questions

What should mourners who are not baptized Catholics do when Holy Communion is offered?

Pew pockets in Catholic churches contain missalettes, or prayerbooks, that include prayers for the Mass, Biblical passages to be read during the Mass, and hymns to be sung during the Mass; their inside covers also usually feature Guidelines for Reception of Communion that detail who is and is not able to receive Communion in that particular church. Mourners who are not able to receive Communion based on those guidelines are encouraged to remain in their seats and offer a silent prayer or personal reflection instead.

Must a Catholic be a member of the church at which their funeral is held?

No; a deceased Catholic doesn’t need to have been a registered or contributing member of a particular parish in order to be entitled to a Catholic funeral there. In fact, a baptized non-Catholic can also have a Catholic funeral, provided that a minister from his or her own church isn’t available, the local bishop doesn’t disapprove, and the deceased didn’t indicate when they were alive that they didn’t want it.

Can Catholics be cremated?

Yes; the Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation in 1967. Since 1997, in turn, the Church has recognized that a body must sometimes be cremated before a funeral, and funerals can take place with cremated remains. The Church instructs that ashes must be interred after the funeral in a “sacred place” such as a church cemetery or columbarium niche, and cannot be placed on display in an urn, scattered, or disposed of in any other manner.

Can Catholics be embalmed?

While embalming is often neither necessary nor legally required, it is acceptable before a Catholic funeral.

Can Catholics donate their organs?

Yes. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.” Catholics can also donate their bodies for scientific study.

What is the dress code at a Catholic funeral?

Business attire in black or muted colors is appropriate for most Catholic funerals. A woman wearing a sleeveless dress should bring a shawl, cardigan, or jacket to wear inside the church. A man, in turn, should wear a button-down shirt and bring a jacket or sport coat to wear inside the church.

What are appropriate Catholic funeral songs and readings?

Some churches specify that music and readings during the Funeral Mass must be “of a religious nature only.” Many churches suggest that friends and family share favorite songs, poems, and words of remembrance at the wake or vigil, the graveside service, or receptions held after church services.

Is it appropriate to send or bring flowers to a Catholic funeral?

Flowers are usually welcome at Catholic funerals, particularly at the wake or vigil held before the funeral liturgy. Professional florists can offer guidance as to the significance of particular flowers and arrangements. Funeral home employees and parish church representatives can provide information as to where flowers can be displayed and how they are to be removed after the funeral.

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