Published November 6, 2008
Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of man, revealed himself to us through his life, death and the resurrection and ascension of his body. In turn, he reveals to us our nature and affords us claim to life everlasting.
In few ways is this discovery and the required faith amid mystery made as poignant as in how the Catholic Church observes death.
“The pattern of the Catholic funeral takes the human event of facing death—one’s own, of a loved one, of a parishioner—it takes the human event seriously,” said Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, professor of theology and pastoral liturgy at the University of Portland in Oregon. “It brings the Catholic faith into the mystery of death.”
In the mingling throughout history of important Catholic beliefs with current culture, made evident today, for example, in the continued ancient practice of keeping vigil with the deceased or seen in the more modern practice of cremation, Catholic funeral rites have emerged.
“What early Christians did was to take their own cultural experiences … and Christianize them; they wrapped their faith around them,” said Father Rutherford, who has co-authored “The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals.”
Catholic funeral rites give witness to the centrality of and hope in the paschal mystery that Christians enter into through baptism when they are marked with the indelible sign of faith.
As St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans: “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life. If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection.”
Understanding of the paschal mystery—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—has become clearer over the centuries and is at the heart of church life, casting a particularly profound light on the meaning of death.
Why A Catholic Funeral Matters
Many secular and religious choices abound when planning for one’s death. But the church expects Catholics to employ Catholic funeral rites after death. Why are the rites so important?
“The first answer is how (the rites) bring in our Catholic faith, about how they explain the meaning of death and that there’s an afterlife and promise of resurrection,” Father Rutherford said.
Funeral rites complete the earthly journey and illustrate the fullness of church teaching. Catholics begin their Christian journey by celebrating the sacraments of initiation, which are baptism, Eucharist and confirmation. Through baptism Christians die to original sin and rise to a new life in Christ.
“In baptism, we’re joined with Christ. It both gives us grace and prepares us to receive grace,” said Father Theodore Book, director of the Atlanta Archdiocese’s Office of Divine Worship. “The ultimate purpose of baptism is to be one with God the Father.”
Another reason for choosing Catholic funeral rites is that survivors are presented with “a way of knowing who they are,” Father Rutherford said. “They also have a sense of hope.”
“To the bereaved it says, ‘here is a place for you.’ Everyone of faith can see that when (death) happens and when I’m in this box, for my wife or my child, for my relatives, the church will be there for me and for them.”
Dimensions Of Catholic Funeral Rites
Catholic funeral rites “help to pray for the soul of the loved one who has died,” Father Book explained.
Through its liturgical celebrations the church affords opportunities for the faithful to express their faith through their senses and aims to “foster an attitude of reverence and reflectiveness,” according to the book called “Order of Christian Funerals” used to conduct the three rites of a Catholic funeral: the vigil, the funeral Mass or liturgy, and the rite of committal.
“When people … come to (the funeral rites) with a good understanding of the Catholic faith, of Catholic practices, that we share in the resurrection of the body, it gives us hope in sorrowful circumstances,” Father Book said. “What is most important and helpful is to come to the ceremony with a deep Catholic faith which helps in the process of grieving and in praying for the soul of a loved one.”
The church prefers that all three rites be included when a Catholic dies but sometimes “unusual circumstances” make that impossible, Father Book said. When the body of a deceased loved one is missing, such as if a person is lost at sea, there is no rite of committal.
“It can be hard on people because there is no concrete sense of saying goodbye,” he said. “We still have Mass though.”
Other situations may also exclude one aspect of or prolong the completion of the funeral rites. For instance, a person may die in one state and wish to be buried in another state, perhaps his or her childhood home.
“We’re so separated because of modern culture,” Father Book said. “But it’s best to have all three steps of the process.”
Common liturgical elements are woven throughout the three rites. These include readings from scripture telling of “God’s design for a world in which suffering and death will relinquish their hold on all whom God has called his own,” according to the book “Order of Christian Funerals.”
The Psalms, with their rich imagery and feelings expressing both the pain of separation but hope and trust in God, are particularly comforting for many.
Music is integral to the funeral rites and selections should illustrate religious themes through which the community can take courage and have hope in Christ’s victory over death.
Symbols are also employed to remind the faithful of various Catholic teachings and sacraments. Holy water, the white pall placed over the coffin during the funeral liturgy and the tall Easter candle connect the funeral rites with elements from one’s baptism into the Christian family.
While the means of a funeral procession has changed over time, it continues to be an act that can “strengthen the bond of communion” and it keeps intact the historical significance of the practice dating back to Roman times.
“In the Roman culture, the funeral procession was the main funeral event,” said Father Rutherford. “Christians Christianized the processions.”
Now, however, instead of trekking by foot with participants singing and grieving, as they did then, most happen today by car.
The First Rite Of Catholic Funerals—The Vigil
The origin of the vigil goes back to ancient times when people gathered in the home of the deceased soon after death. Here they would share memories and “keep vigil” until the final leave taking, Father Rutherford said.
Fewer people die at home today and often vigil services are held at funeral homes.
During the vigil the community spends time with the family of the deceased, sharing fond memories, praying together for the person’s soul and, when a formal vigil service is held, finding comfort in listening to scripture readings of God’s mercy.
The Second Rite—The Funeral Mass Or Liturgy
The center of the church’s celebration for the deceased is the funeral liturgy. At this time the church community joins family members and friends in church, preferably in the home parish of the deceased as a reminder of his or her sacramental life there. Here, they acknowledge Christ’s victory over death and thank God for his mercy to which the church commends the soul of the deceased.
The church prefers that the funeral liturgy include Mass, which connects the Passover of the Old Testament to the paschal mystery of the New Testament. One passes over death into new life through Christ, who previously has fed the deceased in the Eucharist and now strengthens the community left behind.
The Eucharist is the celebration of the paschal mystery and has been aligned closely with funeral rites dating back to as early as the funeral Mass of St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica.
There is a “natural link” between the Eucharist and observing one’s death, according to Father Rutherford. Although early Christians did not celebrate Eucharist in the catacombs, as once was thought, it is noteworthy that when they were free to build their own churches, they built them precisely above the resting places of the martyrs, he explained.
The funeral liturgy concludes with the final commendation and farewell, which acknowledges the imminent separation to come while believing that all the baptized share the same destiny.
“The church joins in prayer for this person and comforts the mourners in the place where this person received grace to enter eternal life. Or, if in purgatory, our prayers are that they be admitted. That’s why we pray for the dead,” Father Book said.
The Rite Of Committal
The final rite is the last act of the faith community in caring for the body of the deceased, which will rise again on the last day. Here, at the grave, tomb or mausoleum, the faithful express hope that all who have gone before marked with the sign of faith received at baptism will pass from the church on earth to the church in heaven.
“This is the final farewell,” Father Book said.
He described the “beautiful” practice of the Trappist monks. “Monks in the community carry out the body of the (deceased) monk, wrapped only in a cloth. Then, they take turns putting dirt in the grave as they commend the person to God.”
While lowering the body into a grave as part of the rite of committal is not as common today, the act is “concrete” and says powerfully that it is time to say goodbye, Father Book noted.
“The body is sacred and holy and will rise again on the last day. Life has changed, not ended; it is transformed and renewed.”
Funeral Rites For Non-Practicing Catholics, Others
While a Catholic funeral is most likely pursued by the many Catholics who regularly practice their faith, often times the church is approached with a request for a Catholic funeral by families or individuals requesting burial for themselves or loved ones who have either fallen away from the Catholic faith or for other reasons were not formally members of the church. These cases may not be as clear-cut and are resolved individually, according to Father Book.
This presents “a real pastoral challenge” and affords an opportunity to catechize Catholics and others on the relevance and importance of practicing their faith, Father Book said.
“In those cases, priests must meet with the families. They have to reach out in some way to those who may have been alienated from the church, to help them see the beauty of the faith they’re not practicing. It’s harder for them to grieve if they are not active in their faith.”
Father Book acknowledged that there may be a trend away from choosing the Catholic rites, but “what’s much more common is that those not practicing for many years want a Catholic funeral.”
Planning funerals for non-Catholics, Catholics not practicing and the unbaptized, are handled “more on a case by case basis,” Father Book said.
The ultimate hope is to share in and take advantage of the bounty of Catholic beliefs and practices during difficult times. This becomes particularly important when a loved one dies. The rewards are obvious when faith flourishes.
“It’s really a beautiful thing to be with a family of strong faith who has lost someone they love,” he observed. “They don’t grieve any less, but they have a real hope, a real strength, that comes from their faith.”
For more information, including “A Guide to Catholic Funerals,” from the archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship, go to www.archatl.com/offices/odw.