Several years ago in ”The Bishop’s Voice” I summarized the Church’s liturgy of funerals as well as regulations for the disposition of the remains of the deceased. Some priests and deacons have reported that there still may be some confusion about these. A brief review of the “Order of Christian Funerals” may be of help to those whose duty it is to provide for the burial of their loved ones.
Planning the funeral rites
The family of the deceased (or those charged with the funeral arrangements) should contact the parish priest as soon as possible after death has occurred. The priest will assist the family in planning the funeral rites, as well as arranging for the time of the funeral Mass. It is important to contact the parish before making final plans with the funeral director. This will help to ensure that the priest and the church are available at a time requested by the family.
The vigil (or wake)
The vigil is the first part of the of the funeral rites. The family and friends of the deceased have the opportunity to pay their respects and offer prayers for the repose of the soul of the deceased. The “Order of Christian Funerals” contains beautiful prayers for the deceased as well as for the consolation of those close to the deceased. In addition to these prayers, the Rosary is a wonderful prayer in which all can participate. The vigil may be conducted by a priest, deacon or lay person.
The vigil may be held in the parish church when and where this is possible, but a funeral home may also fittingly be used. In addition to prayer, the vigil is a most appropriate time for family and friends to share memories of the deceased. The setting usually allows for the display of photographs or other mementos that recall the life of the deceased.
In spite of contrary opinions, eliminating the vigil from the funeral rites does not lessen the grief of family and friends. In fact, the vigil allows the community to express grief appropriately, as well as providing an opportunity for the community to offer condolences and support to those who are grieving.
The funeral Mass
The funeral Mass is at the center of the funeral rites and is certainly the most important part of those rites. The remains (ideally the body) of the deceased should be brought to the church one last time so that there the Christian community may pray for the eternal repose of the one who has died. The Scriptures that are proclaimed and the prayers of the funeral Mass are also efficacious for the renewal of hope in the resurrection of the dead for those who participate in the funeral Mass.
It is very distressing to hear from our priests and deacons that often family members will deny the deceased a funeral Mass. Every Catholic has a right to a funeral Mass, unless the person has left the Catholic Church or otherwise left instructions that there is to be no funeral Mass. Simply because family members may not be practicing Catholics or because only a very few people are expected to attend the Mass, it is not legitimate for these reasons to eliminate Mass from the funeral rites. When the funeral Mass is not celebrated, not only is the deceased denied this most powerful prayer, but the Christian community is also denied the opportunity to offer Mass for their deceased friend.
The homily that is given at the funeral Mass should expound on the Sacred Scriptures that were proclaimed and should give emphasis to the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in which we participate by faith and baptism into Christ. The priest or deacon who preaches the homily may, of course, relate the mystery of redemption to the life of the deceased. The homily should not become a eulogy.
It is permitted for a family member or friend of the deceased to offer a brief reflection (two or three minutes) at the end of the Mass and before the Final Commendation. This reflection is to be spiritual in nature and appropriate for a liturgical setting. Ordinarily there should be only one such reflection, and it should be read from a prepared text that has been shared with the celebrant of the Mass beforehand.
The music for the funeral Mass is to be sacred music that is fitting for the service. Secular songs that were favorites of the deceased are not appropriate for Mass, but could be sung or performed at the Vigil.
The Disposition of the Body.
The disposition of the remains of the deceased that is preferred by the Church is the interment or entombment of the body. Cremation is permitted provided that it is not an expression of disrespect for the body or a repudiation of the Church’s teaching on the resurrection of the body. If cremation is chosen, it is preferred that the body be brought to church for the funeral Mass and the cremation take place afterwards. If cremation takes place immediately after death, the cremated remains may be brought to the church for the funeral Mass.
When the body of one who has died is cremated, the remains are to be placed in a worthy container with the name of the deceased on it. The cremated remains are to be taken to a cemetery or mausoleum for entombment as soon as possible after the cremation or after the funeral Mass. The cremated remains may never be kept in the home or any place other than a cemetery or mausoleum. The cremated remains may never be scattered or mixed with the remains of another person. The priest or deacon who presides at the funeral rites is charged with ensuring that the cremated remains are properly buried or entombed in a timely manner.
Our faith tells us that death is not the end, but rather the beginning of the fullness of life. Our funeral rites convey that truth beautifully, and these rites should always be carried out with dignity and respect.
May the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.