As the weather grows colder, the leaves on the trees fall, and Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approach, it is natural for many of us to think about the people we’ve loved who are no longer with us. For us Catholics, the month of November is when the Church remembers and prays for those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Therefore, as we prepare to turn our calendars from October to November, let’s take a closer look at the Catholic funeral rites.
The Catholic funeral rites consist of three principal parts or movements. In liturgical speech, we sometimes refer to these parts as “stational” liturgies because they occur at three separate and distinct “stations” — the funeral home, the church and the place of interment — and are called the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Mass and the Rite of Committal.
The Vigil for the Deceased (sometimes also called “The Wake”)
The Vigil for the Deceased is traditionally the first liturgy celebrated by the Christian community in the time after death and before the funeral Mass. The “Order of Christian Funerals” describes the Vigil as the time when “the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence. … Consoled by the redeeming word of God and by the abiding presence of Christ and his Spirit, the assembly at the vigil calls upon the father of mercy to receive the deceased into the kingdom of light and peace.”
The structure of the Vigil of the Deceased is the Liturgy of the Word, which consists of Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, Intercessory Prayers and a Concluding Rite. Its purpose is to proclaim the paschal mystery — life, death, and resurrection — teach what it means to remember those who have died and convey the hope of being gathered together in God’s kingdom. It is also the time that family, friends and parish members are encouraged to share words of remembrance of the one who has died within the context of liturgical prayer. The Vigil makes room for God when death strikes — at a time when there’s shock, confusion and sadness.
The Funeral Mass (sometimes also called “The Mass of Christian Burial”)
The Funeral Mass is the central liturgical celebration of the Christian community. Different from the Vigil, in which the assembly keeps watch with the family, the Funeral Mass is when the community gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to, as the “Order of Christian Funerals” says, “give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the paschal mystery.”
The Funeral Mass includes the Reception of the Body, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist and Final Commendation.
The Reception of the Body marks the beginning of the Funeral Mass, whereby the family is greeted at the door of the church, the casket is sprinkled with holy water as a reminder of baptism and the white pall is placed, which symbolizes the white baptismal garment worn when the deceased was baptized. Then begins the entrance process, or the last journey the deceased will make to the altar of the Lord. Funeral Masses are always celebrated in the parish church because that is where the Christian life is begun in the waters of baptism, nourished in the Eucharist and where the community gathers to commend their deceased brothers and sisters to the Lord. The church is both a symbol of the community and of the heavenly liturgy.
The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist both take place in the usual manner. The readings always proclaim some aspect of the paschal mystery and convey our hope of being gathered together again in God’s kingdom. The homily is based on the readings and is not a kind of eulogy or remembrance — that was done at the Vigil. Instead, the homily should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord as proclaimed in the scriptures.
The Final Commendation is a final farewell by members of the community. The “Order of Christian Funerals” describes it as “an act of respect for one of their (the community’s) members, whom they entrust to the tender and merciful embrace of God.” The casket is incensed, and just as the casket was sprinkled at the beginning of the liturgy as a reminder of baptism, the incensation signifies respect for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. During the Final Commendation, the Song of Farewell, which affirms hope and trust in the paschal mystery, is sung. Finally, a prayer is prayed commending the deceased into God’s hands, affirming our belief that those who have died in Christ will share in Christ’s victory over death.
The Rite of Committal (sometimes called “The Burial”)
The Rite of Committal is the third principal part of the funeral liturgy and concludes the funeral rites by committing the body of the deceased to its final resting place. In placing the body in the ground, tomb or other place of interment, the community expresses their hope that the deceased now awaits the glory of the resurrection. The ritual itself is an expression of the communion that exists between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven marked by the prayers that ask the Lord to welcome the deceased to the table of God’s children in heaven.
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.