Burial and mourning ceremonies in Roman Catholicism
Before a person dies, they may be administered last rites by a priest, to give them a chance to be absolved of sin.
On the evening before the funeral, there is a wake, where people gather and read scripture and prayers. Eulogies may be delivered here; they are not part of the funeral itself.
The funeral ceremony is a formal mass held in a church.
The final service, held by the graveside, is known as the Rite of Committal.
Honoring a loved one’s religious rituals in death can be a powerful sign of respect and compassion, even if the tradition is not your own. Beliefs about dying, death, and the afterlife are central to almost every faith or religion. They reassure us about the larger meaning of life and help quell uncertainty about an unavoidable yet unknowable eventuality.
While there are variations of observance, regional difference, and cultural practice within Roman Catholicism, the faith is rooted in the belief that God made human beings to enjoy eternal life with him. Catholics commonly believe that death is a passing from the physical world to the afterlife, where the soul lives in heaven, hell, or purgatory.
For Catholics, death is not the end of life. Because of Jesus and his sacrifice, dying has a positive meaning. Catholic scripture states that believing in Jesus during earthly life gives you eternal life when you reach heaven. In addition, many Catholics believe that Jesus will return at the end of time and then the bodies of the dead will be resurrected.
Care of the dying
In times of medical crisis, we may feel enormous pressure to use modern science to prolong life. In Catholic tradition, there is a moral responsibility to use ordinary medical treatments but no obligation to extend extraordinary measures if they would be futile or overly burdensome.
When death is imminent, a priest can make a visit to administer last rites. Upon death, Catholic souls go to heaven, hell, or purgatory, depending on whether their actions have been judged as being in accordance with God’s teachings. Last rites offer dying Catholics the opportunity to absolve themselves of any sins and enter heaven. This also ensures the priest is present at the time of death to comfort and pray for the family.
The priest generally recites sacramental prayers, offers penance (hears confession), and administers Holy Communion (partaking of a symbolic wafer). He may also anoint the person on the forehead and palms of the hands with a holy oil blessed by a bishop.
Someone who dies in the state of mortal sin, such as apostasy, murder, or theft, goes to hell under God’s judgment. Believers who have not absolved themselves of their venial sins, i.e., less severe sins, are destined for purgatory, considered a punishment because of the uncertainty of when they will receive God’s forgiveness. Last rites cannot be performed on people who have already died.
Catholic funeral requirements
For the most part, only baptized and confirmed Catholics can receive a Catholic funeral. Exceptions include catechumens (Catholics-in-training) and young children who were not yet baptized but whose parents intended for them to be.
Observing religious rituals that have endured for centuries can help you and your loved ones work through your feelings.
A Catholic who doesn’t actively practice and whose family is Catholic or someone not registered to a parish may also be eligible to receive a Catholic funeral, provided it is clear that their lifestyle did not contradict the faith and it would not be against the person’s wishes. In recent decades, the church has allowed Catholic services in cases of suicide.
Honoring rites and rituals
Catholic rituals and ceremonies around the funeral and burial have several parts.
Also known as a wake, viewing, or visitation, this is a time for friends and family to gather at a funeral home, generally on the evening before the funeral mass, and pay their last respects. People who want to provide comfort and strength to the immediate family but cannot attend the funeral mass can attend this less formal service. Though the service contains prayers, scripture readings, and liturgy, remembrances and eulogies can also be shared. (Eulogies are not delivered at the funeral mass.)
The Rosary prayer is often recited prior to the funeral mass, particularly if the person was devoted to praying it. This may be led by a friend, family member, or member of the church.
Held in a church and conducted by a priest, the funeral mass includes the Reception of the Body, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Final Commendation and Farewell. Upon entering the church, mourners can take a mass card provided by the parish office. It has the person’s name and is intended to demonstrate that the mass is designated for that person. Under most circumstances, the body will be present during this service.
Rite of Committal
The final service at which the body is buried or interred takes place either in a chapel or at the gravesite. The priest reads a meaningful passage of scripture, makes concluding remarks of comfort for the bereaved, presents a statement of committal of the body back to the earth, and concludes with prayer. In order to make the burial or interment site a sacred place, the priest says a blessing before the body or remains are placed inside. The priest recites more prayers, and then mourners join in to say the Lord’s Prayer.
Historically, the Catholic Church has not supported cremation, but has allowed it in recent decades under some circumstances. Even so, most churches prefer that the body be present for the majority of funeral rites, meaning that cremation should occur afterwards. Ashes may not be scattered, and burial rites are performed after the cremation process.
Mourning your loss
There is no prescribed mourning period, nor are there any memorial events in modern practices; however, a Catholic family may appreciate you attending the vigil service or funeral mass, sending a sympathy card, sending flowers to the funeral home or family’s home, making a telephone call, or visiting them at home.
On an ongoing basis or on a significant anniversary, family or friends may visit the gravesite or make a mass intention (also known as an offering or a memorial mass). Mourners can contact a Catholic church to request prayers by the priest and offer a small, symbolic amount of money to the parish.
Observing religious rituals that have endured over generations (or even centuries) can help you and your loved ones work through your feelings; they offer a familiar and comforting structure for coming together, mourning, and expressing your grief.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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