How Is a Catholic Funeral Service Different From Other Funeral Services?

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How is a Catholic funeral service different from other funeral services?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

There are many differences between the dictates of traditional Catholic funerals, to which many still adhere, and more relaxed modern practices.

Traditionally, for example, Catholics prohibited the practice of cremation unless necessitated by a contagious disease, finding it contradicts the notion of resurrection -- but that ban has been relaxed. So has the previous prohibition against having the cremated remains, or cremains, present at the funeral mass rather than delaying the cremation until after the mass; bishops in each diocese now have the discretion to decide whether cremains can be present.

The funeral service is commonly led by one or more priests, who wear black, white or violet vestments. There are commonly three parts or types of rituals involved in a Catholic funeral: a vigil or wake, a mass, and the burial.

Vigil: The vigil or wake is a ceremony in which the participants gather to pay respect to the dead and to surviving family members and to attend to the deceased's soul. It is commonly held in a funeral home or parish church or chapel, although it can also take place at a home or other location. A priest often leads a group prayer for those attending, or a quiet place is provided for those who wish to pray alone. A casket containing the body is usually present and may be open or closed, and flowers commonly adorn the casket and common areas, along with candles and a crucifix.

Mass: The Catholic funeral service is a mass, generally held in church the day after the vigil. It consists of receiving the body at the church or opening rites, the liturgies of the word and Eucharist, and final committal or concluding rites. The traditional requiem mass is similar to other Catholic masses except that incense is not burned at the points usually designated, nor is the kiss of peace exchanged.

Music plays an important role in Catholic funerals. In the past, there have been controversies in some churches over whether secular music, such as the ballad Danny Boy, should be sung at funerals. While particular selections are up to the surviving family members and officiating clergy, the overriding guidance is that the music should be uplifting and hopeful for mourners, often focusing on the themes of resurrection and everlasting life. It is common to have instrumental or choral accompaniment and to invite those attending to sing along. For suggestions on musical selections, see Religious Funeral Songs.

Eulogies to the deceased were not a part of traditional Catholic funeral services. Instead, they were included in the vigil held before the service or during a gathering held after the body was buried. Some parishes now allow family members to give brief remembrances following communion or just before the concluding rites.

Burial: While cremation is growing in acceptance and popularity among Catholics, body burial is still more common. Just before the actual burial, a priest generally officiates at a short ceremony at the graveside, leading prayers and blessing the grave and coffin with holy water that has been sanctified by a priest or bishop.

When the funeral rites have ended, it is customary for the mourners to gather and share a meal, often at the home of a close relative.