Catholic Funeral Beliefs and FAQs
What We Believe as Catholics
If you have ever wondered why Catholics have certain rituals and practices at the time of death, then you are not alone. Our faith in the Paschal Mystery (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) reveals itself through the dying and death of each Christian. The following points are designed to invite reflection upon the meaning of what we do and believe at the time of a Christian’s death. We also hope that this information will guide you to a better understanding and appreciation of our beliefs and practices.
In facing death, we are reminded that God has created each person for eternal life. We celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a person’s life, which has now been returned to the Author of Life. At the death of a Christian, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased. We are confident in the conviction that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds of family, friendship and community that are forged in life.
The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of his or her sins. The celebration of the Christian funeral brings hope and consolation to the living.
In the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Church celebrates Christ’s Passover from death to life and our participation in this great mystery. The faith of all the baptized is renewed and nourished in this celebration. The intimate connection between the baptism of the Christian into the death and resurrection of Christ and the Eucharistic celebration is one of the main reasons for offering the Mass for the deceased.
In summary, we believe that in celebrating the funeral rites, we affirm and express the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints. Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth and benefit from their prayers and intercession. In the gathering of the community of believers with the community of saints in heaven, we offer our prayers through the person of Jesus Christ in the greatest prayer of the Church, which is the Eucharist.
Funeral Rites: Vigil, Funeral Liturgy, and Rite of Committal.
When a member of the faithful has died the Church identifies three principle ritual moments, for the celebration of the rite of Christian burial:
The Vigil Service
The Vigil for the deceased, commonly known as the Wake, is the initial rite celebrated by the Christian community at the time following death and before the funeral liturgy and the rite of committal.
The Vigil usually takes place in a funeral home. It may also take place in the family home or in the parish church, as local custom dictates.
The celebration of the Vigil is the time for the Christian community to offer both prayer and consolation to the members of the bereaved family; to read and reflect on the Word of God; to call upon our God of Mercy through intercessory prayer; and to provide an opportunity for family and friends to recall the memory of their loved one. Other prayers, such as the Rosary, are also encouraged since they help us to reflect upon the Paschal Mystery and so lead us to a greater sense of hope at this time of grief.
The Mass of Christian Burial
For Catholics the celebration of the Mass is both the source and the summit of our faith. Hence, when we celebrate the Mass at the time of death it is seen as the fullest expression of our faith in God’s abundant mercy, our hope in the resurrection of the dead, and the love that God has for us, which is not extinguished even by death.
As an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ we actively participate in the Funeral Mass. Family members may choose the Scripture reading for the Mass, cover the casket with the pall, place Christian symbols on the casket (crucifix, bible), present the bread and wine at the preparation rite, and help select hymns for the community to sing.
Members of the parish community also participate in the funeral liturgy and join with the bereaved family in the celebration of the funeral rites by proclaiming the Word, leading the faithful in song, serving at the altar and if needed, helping with the distribution of communion.
A priest or deacon preaches at the Funeral Mass. By preaching on Jesus Christ, who conquered death by His victory on the cross, our faith offers consolation to the family in their loss and challenges the community to live more faithful lives.
A eulogy differs from a homily and consists of a reflection on the life of the deceased and how this person touched the lives of others. Sharing memories with Christian charity, good discretion, and warm humor are appropriate elements for a eulogy. Eulogies are encouraged to be shared at the Vigil. However, if the parish priest agrees, a family member or friend may share one brief written eulogy (or Tribute) not more than five minutes after the communion rite at Mass.
The Rite of Committal
The Rite of Committal is celebrated at the place of burial. In the committal of the body to its place of rest, we express our hope that the deceased will experience the glory of the resurrection. The committal must always be celebrated immediately following the funeral, unless a good pastoral reason dictates otherwise, such as travel to a distant cemetery. In the case of cremation, the cremated remains of the deceased must always be immediately interred in a consecrated burial site.
Frequently Asked Questions for Funerals
What do I do when a loved one is sick and is dying?
- If you are at home, contact your parish church and ask for a priest.
- If you are away at a Hospital or Hospice, please ask the chaplain or Nurse to help you contact the nearest local parish and request the sacraments for the sick and dying.
- Don’t wait until death is imminent before contacting a priest. The primary sacrament is anointing of the sick—and the importance of receiving confession is encouraged. The grace they receive through those sacraments and the peace they get—especially from the forgiveness of sins and from reception of Communion, are extraordinary gifts to prepare them for eternity.
What do I do when a loved one dies?
- Contact a local funeral home of your choice. Also contact your parish priest.
- The priest will assist a family in making appropriate liturgical arrangements such as scripture readings and musical selections.
What is the proper rite of Christian burial?
- Viewing at the funeral home or parish church
- Mass of Christian Burial at the deceased’s parish church
- Committal services at the cemetery
Who can receive the Rite of Christian Burial?
Catholics may receive the rites of Christian burial within the celebration of Mass. Members of other Christian faith traditions usually receive the funeral rites of their own Church; however, they may also receive the rite of Christian burial in the Catholic Church but outside of the Mass. A Christian burial service, commendation, and committal at the graveside may be offered for them.
What are the options for a viewing?
You can schedule a viewing the evening before the burial and/or before the Mass of Christian Burial. The viewing is usually held in a funeral home, however, the parish may authorize a viewing in the parish church.
Why have a viewing?
It provides a sense of closure and allows family members who were not present at the time of death a time to express their last farewell. It also allows extended family and friends an opportunity to express their support and condolences.
What about a eulogy for the deceased?
Below are liturgical guidelines for eulogies:
- It is recommended that the Vigil (Wake) is the most appropriate time for members of the family and friends to share memories of the deceased of to pay tribute to the deceased through vocal remembrances, photographs, favorite songs, etc.
- The reception after the burial is another appropriate time for the remembrances because there is less of an emotional burden and the context is looking toward the future in a more positive manner.
- If a family member wishes to express appreciation or say something in remembrance at Mass, the following are to be observed:
- Only one family member or friend is to speak.
- The words to be shared ought to be written out beforehand.
- Because of the intensity of emotions at the time of a funeral, the person who will speak is to be brief, that is, no more than five minutes.
- This faith-remembrance (or Tribute) is to take place after the Prayer after Communion or prior to the Collect.
My deceased family member was not an actively practicing Catholic, can we still have a Mass of Christian burial?
Yes, the Church encourages active and inactive Catholics to take full advantage of the rite of Christian burial.
Is cremation allowed in the Catholic Church?
Yes. Although the Church now permits cremation, burial of the body is still preferred. The physical presence of the body reflects the values affirmed in these rites. After the final commendation at the end of the Mass of Christian Burial, the body is transported to the crematorium for cremation. Through a dispensation granted by the Church, cremated remains may also be present in church for the Mass of Christian Burial, provided that the motives for cremation are not contrary to Church teaching. Typically, having the cremated remains present for Mass is an exception to be made on an individual basis and is not considered the norm.
Must cremated remains be buried/entombed?
Yes. Respectful final disposition of cremated remains involves interment or entombment. Cremated human remains are always to be treated with respect and placed in a worthy vessel. Burial options include a family grave in a cemetery marked with traditional memorial stone or entombed in a columbarium.
May I scatter the cremated remains?
No. The practice of scattering on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home is not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.
The principle of respect for cremated remains of a deceased Christian embraces the deeper belief in the individuality of each baptized person before God.
Additional information regarding Christian Burial / Cremation
Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation, 25.10.2016
Excerpts (from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith):
- Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.
- The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the body of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased. Nevertheless, cremation is not prohibited, “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine”.
- When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority.
- The conservation (keeping) of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted […] The ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.
- In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects. These courses of action cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.
- When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.
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