If you are viewing this page because you have lost a beloved friend or family member, please be assured of our prayers of support and consolation.
The Catholic Church differs from many other Christian traditions in her teaching of several areas surrounding death and salvation.
First, human nature is understood to be a composite of body and soul, the body is not simply an “empty shell,” but is part of the deceased person–a part that all of the dead will recover–in a transfigured way–at the end of time. So bodies must continue to be treated with dignity and respect, as was our Incarnate Lord’s body, when it was tenderly placed in the tomb.
Second, salvation is understood to be determined at Judgment, based not only on one’s baptism and confession of Christian faith, but also on the fruit of that faith shown over one’s life–judged mercifully by Our Lord, who knows our hearts, our thoughts, our frailty, and our infinite need for his infinite mercy.
Third, the prayers of the living are of assistance to the dead. In those souls who are judged as saved (by their acceptance and life of faith), but still bearing the consequent effects of sins already forgiven, the deceased endure a state of purification (purgatory) by which their souls–their love of God–is purified, because nothing imperfect can enter into the presence of God. The funeral rites–especially the sacrifice of the Mass–are offered that by the merit of our prayers, made in union with Christ and received by God in his mercy, our loved one might be given a special outpouring of grace to surrender more completely to the perfect love of God, and enter more swiftly into paradise.
The funeral rite of the Catholic Church traditionally has a three-part structure:
I. The Vigil for the Deceased, at the [funeral] home
The funeral vigil, like all of the church’s liturgical vigils, is a “night-watch” in preparation for the liturgical celebration on the following day. The funeral vigil, normally held at the funeral home (though, sometimes held in a family home, or in the church), takes place in conjunction with the viewing, or “paying respect” to the body of the deceased, and private prayer. The Vigil is a liturgical prayer service, with (optional) music, readings from the psalms and other parts of holy scripture, and of course prayers both for the deceased, and those in mourning. Often the rosary is prayed, as well.
If a eulogy is to given for the deceased, the Vigil is the preferred time, rather than the Funeral Mass.
II. The Funeral Mass (or Funeral outside of Mass), at the church
The Funeral Mass begins with the arrival of the procession from the funeral home to the church. The rite begins at the back of the church, where (ideally), the assembly is gathered. The presider (priest or deacon) sprinkles the casket (or urn) with holy water and the pall is placed on the casket (but not an urn), both rituals invoking baptismal imagery. The procession, with the ministers leading the casket to the sanctuary, and the assembly processing behind, begins the liturgy–not with the greeting (which was given at the vigil)–but with the opening prayer, marking this as the center piece of the three-part rite.
Then follows the Liturgy of the Word with a homily (which is not a eulogy–it is about the love of God and the paschal mystery accomplished in Jesus Christ, especially in light of the mystery and sorrow of death, and the hope of salvation and the victory of divine love–it is not biographical praise of the deceased) and the Prayers of the Faithful (intercessions).
If the liturgy is a Mass, then follows the Liturgy of the Eucharist as normal, where those free of mortal sin and in full communion with the Church partake of the eucharistic species (those who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, and/or not actively–weekly–living their Catholic Faith are asked not to present themselves to receive the sacrament of the eucharist).
After the prayer after communion (or outside Mass, after the Lord’s Prayer), the liturgy ends with the commendation of the deceased to the mercy of God, asking that the gates of paradise be opened, and by the mercy of God, the deceased be judged fit to enter within. The liturgy does not end with a blessing and dismissal (again, reminding us that the liturgy is one part of the three-part rite), but an invitation to the place of committal.
III. Committal (Burial), at the cemetery
The third and final piece of the funeral rite takes place at the place of burial. The funeral procession, again with the casket, in the hearse, leading the procession, and the assembly following, makes its way from the church to the final resting place of the deceased. In the committal liturgy, the grace of God is again invoked for the salvation of the deceased, and for the consolation of the family and friends in mourning. The burial place is blessed. Then follows intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, and at last, the blessing and dismissal, concluding the Catholic funeral rite.
Even if the deceased is to be cremated, it is preferred by the Church that the body be present at the funeral liturgy (funeral homes provide a temporary casket for the liturgy). If the committal does not immediately follow the funeral, the committal/burial should be as soon as possible.
There can be some confusion and uncertainty about what to do when a loved one dies–especially if it is sudden. One of the first calls should be to the funeral home of your choice, who will usher you through the whole process. Almost every funeral home is familiar (to varying degrees) with the traditions and requirements of the Catholic Church, and of course with laws that come into play when someone dies. The funeral home will contact the church.
It is possible–and often a good investment–to pre-plan and/or pre-pay your funeral. It can solve a lot of problems for your family when they’re trying to figure out what you would have wanted. And pre-paying allows you to lock in current prices against inflation on many aspects of a funeral. Then be sure to let your family know that you have arrangements already made, and with which funeral home.
If the deceased has served in the U.S. Military, the casket can be draped with the American Flag, however, during the funeral Mass (or Funeral outside of Mass), the flag is replaced by the white pall. The Funeral Home can also make arrangements for military honors to be presented at the cemetery.
Some related information from the USCCB (the US Bishops Conference) regarding funerals, cremation, and related matters:
The Diocese of Harrisburg has recently released particular guidelines with respect to cremation. Cremation was previously forbidden by the Catholic Church because it was introduced, in large part, as a statement of rejection of the resurrection of the body. Cremation is permitted, on the condition that it is not being done as such a statement of rejection. The guiding principle with regard to cremation is that the cremated remains are to be treated with similar dignity as an uncremated body, most especially that (1) the funeral and burial should be as soon as reasonably possible, and (2) the cremated remains are to be buried in a single (dignified) container in hallowed ground (or columbarium or mausoleum crypt), not scattered or separated.
The Diocese of Harrisburg guidelines for cremation:
Eternal rest grant unto him/her, O Lord.
R. And let perpetual light shine upon him/her.
May he/she rest in peace.
May his/her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.