Catholic Funeral Traditions

After the loss of a loved one, many Catholics find comfort in the mourning traditions unique to their faith. Catholic funeral rites bring family and friends together to praise God and give thanks for Christ’s mercy and victory over sin and death. While not a sacrament, the funeral Mass and the rite of Christian burial are considered some of the most important services in the Catholic religion.

In any Christian religion, the soul is believed to live on after death, in either Heaven or Hell. But Catholicism also posits that souls can stay temporarily in Purgatory—where they rest while family and friends intercede with appeals to God for mercy and forgiveness. For this reason, a Catholic funeral may revolve around prayer.

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Catholic funeral rites

Catholic funerals usually have three parts: the vigil and visitation, the liturgy and the committal. Each of these rites provides comfort and closure during a difficult time.

Catholic vigil (wake)

Catholic funeral rites begin with the vigil, also known as a wake or visitation. Typically held at night, it might take place at a Catholic church, a funeral home, the family home or an alternate location. Guests offer prayers and condolences to the family and may read scripture. Eulogies, singing and poetry readings may also take place during a vigil. The rosary will be prayed. Some families prefer to have the wake and funeral on the same day. In that case, a rosary may be prayed prior to the funeral Mass.

Catholic funeral Mass (also called the requiem Mass)

The next of the Catholic funeral rites is the liturgy, or a memorial Mass traditionally held at a church. Most services will be solemn and formal, but they can be personalized according to the wishes of the family with music and readings. Though there can be some variation to account for the needs and preferences of the grieving family, following is the general order of events at a funeral Mass:

  • Greetings and introduction
  • Procession of the priest, casket and congregation into the church
  • Prayers and songs
  • Scripture readings
  • Communion
  • Concluding prayers and blessing with incense
  • Procession of casket out of the church

The loved one's casket or urn is often sprinkled with holy water when it's carried into the church. Symbols of the Christian faith, such as an open Bible or crucifix, may be placed on the casket. The first few rows of pews at a funeral Mass are often reserved for close family. A priest leads the ceremony.

Non-Catholic guests are invited to participate in the service to show support for the family. However, only Catholics will receive communion. Non-Catholic guests can line up with other mourners and cross their arms to indicate they are not receiving communion. They receive a blessing instead.

Catholic burial and cremation

The final part of Catholic funeral rites is the committal—the last goodbye. After the funeral Mass, friends and family gather at the cemetery. Here a priest or Catholic deacon will recite more scripture and prayers. The grave is blessed with holy water. Then the family may wish to see a loved one's casket or urn placed in the ground or a mausoleum. (Catholics believe that ashes must be committed to a consecrated site. Urns and other cremation containers are usually not kept at a home, and Catholics usually do not scatter a loved one's ashes.)

Catholic funeral etiquette

Guests are welcome to send flowers to a family's home or the funeral home. Charitable donations may also be offered to a church or charity chosen by the family. At a Catholic funeral or memorial, traditional attire is semiformal, modest and dark in color. At a celebration of life, more personalized clothing or color choices may be acceptable.

A guest book is often provided at a service, and visitors are encouraged to sign. Memorial votive candles are usually present near the front or back of the church, and guests are encouraged to light them in remembrance. A small donation may be placed in a box located nearby.

Questions about Catholic funerals

Commonly asked questions about Catholic funerals include:

  • How long is a Catholic funeral Mass? A funeral Mass can be as short as 30 minutes or last more than an hour if the Mass includes communion.
  • When does a Catholic funeral take place? Catholic funerals take place as quickly as the family can make arrangements and everyone who needs to be present at a service can be. Funerals are not usually held on Sundays, which are reserved for worship.
  • Is there a Catholic mourning period? Though friends and neighbors may bring food and keep the family company, there is no specified mourning period in the Catholic religion.

Planning a Catholic funeral

Dignity Memorial® professionals are experts in Catholic funeral rites. When you plan with us, you’re not just choosing a provider, you’re choosing a partner. We can help you plan a service for yourself or a loved one that will honor your family traditions.