The Catholic Funeral
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world’s largest Christian church. The Pope, Benedict XVI, the successor of Peter as bishop of Rome, is its highest authority and resides in Vatican City, Rome. Catholicism is distinguished from other forms of Christianity by belief in the sacraments, tradition, papal authority and prayer.
A traditional Catholic funeral consists of three main rites: The Vigil (also known as the Wake), the celebration of the Eucharist (formerly called the Requiem Mass), and the Committal.
The Vigil (Wake)
The Catholic 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 is the time for the Christian community to offer prayer and consolation to the members of the bereaved family, to read and reflect on the Word of God, to call upon 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 sometimes recited.
The Mass of Christian Burial (Requiem Mass)
For Catholics, the celebration of the Mass is both the source and summit of faith. Hence, to celebrate the Mass at the time of death is seen as the fullest expression of faith in God’s abundant mercy, hope in the resurrection, and the love that God has, which is not extinguished by death.
Only baptized, practicing Catholics may partake of Holy Communion. Other participants may approach the altar with arms crossed over the chest and receive a blessing from the celebrant. All non-Catholics may follow the motions during Mass (kneel, stand, sit), or remain seated throughout the Mass.
Members of the parish community join with the bereaved family in the celebration of the funeral rite. A priest or deacon preaches at the Funeral Mass. A eulogy differs from a homily and consists of a reflection on the life of the deceased and how the person touched the lives of others.
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, there are prayers of hope that the deceased will experience the glory of the resurrection. The committal is almost always celebrated immediately following the funeral unless good 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. The Catholic Church has always set aside ground that is blessed and consecrated by God for the specific purpose of providing Christians with a dignified and holy resting place. The sacred nature of cemeteries is directly related to the Church’s belief in the resurrection of the body.
Following the funeral, family and friends typically gather at the home of a close family member or friend to continue the celebration of the life of the deceased. It is a time to reminisce, to continue support of the bereaved family, and to share food and drink brought by family and friends.
Catholic Funeral Etiquette
Modest dress, usually black, is the traditional attire for funerals. Flowers may be sent to the funeral home or to the family’s residence. Donations in memory of the deceased are also appropriate and may be sent in the name of the deceased to a particular charity of choice.
There may be a guest book either at the Vigil (Wake) or at the church where the Mass is celebrated. All visitors are invited to sign.
During the Vigil (Wake), the casket might be open or closed. It is customary to make a brief visit and spend a few moments in private prayer and then to visit with the family members.
Some churches may offer memorial votive candles. It is a ceremonial gesture to light a candle in memory of the deceased and to offer a small donation in the box near the candles.