The Liturgy

As I sat down to write this month’s article, I realized it was my father’s first birthday since his death this past January. Growing up, my mother always made his favorite cake — pineapple upside down cake — and one of us kids would always buy a box of chocolate covered cherries.

This year, the day almost got away from me. I got busy with things. Since I no longer live in the United States but in Italy, I wasn’t planning a trip home for his birthday, and the call to my family will be tomorrow my time. And those cherry cordials, which are so easy to find in the stores, especially around the holidays, have been replaced by other types of sweets, or “dolci,” as we say in Italian.

Since it is November, the month when the Church remembers and prays for our faithful departed, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk a little about the Church’s beautiful funeral rites. These rites convey a sense of hope and consolation while reaffirming the belief that in Christ, there is no death, for through his own Death and Resurrection nothing “will separate us from the love of God” and from each other.

The Church recommends these special liturgies in three stages: the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Mass, and the Rite of Committal.

The Vigil for the Deceased

The first of three parts of the funeral rites is the Vigil for the Deceased. It is the principal rite celebrated by the Christian community in the time following death and before the funeral Mass. It is important for the grieving family because the celebration of the liturgy at the vigil can help transform the time into an experience of “consolation through faith in Christ.” It’s a dynamic interaction of time and liturgy that has the potential to be part of initiating the long process of healing the throes of grief. During the vigil, initial grieving happens within a world of meaning that acknowledges God as the one who heals and whose healing comes through the power of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

With sensitivity to the grief and sadness of mourners, the vigil can be the beginning of a new relationship with the loved one. During the time of the vigil liturgy, the focus is on the death of a loved one and consolation of the mourners. In a safe and supportive environment, this helps the bereaved begin to own the reality of the death, first intellectually, and gradually, emotionally. The vigil is precisely the time when personal preferences and popular funeral songs and music can find a place. Additionally, expressions of grief or sharing of memories are not only “allowed” by the public rites, but they are also “expected.”

The gathered community of the Church is an essential element of the vigil. It is a Liturgy of the Word, consisting of the introductory rites, the Liturgy of the Word, intercessory prayers and a concluding rite. Its purpose is to proclaim the mystery of 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.

Most importantly, the vigil makes room for God when death strikes. Our ancestors in faith transformed the preparation and watching over bodies of the dead by filling that time with Scripture and prayer, setting a pattern for Christians to enter the journey of the living with the loss of their loved ones, all while trusting that in Christ, death does not have the last word. The vigil makes room for God and surrounds the mourners with the embrace of their faith.

Funeral Mass

The main funeral liturgy is the Funeral Mass. Different from the vigil, the assembly now gathers in church with the family and friends to “give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, and to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion.” The deceased has shared the Body of Christ, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet that awaits all of us. We are reminded of the words of Christ Jesus himself who said, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live forever.” (John 6:55)

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 then covered with a white pall, which symbolizes the white baptismal garment worn when the deceased was baptized.

The Funeral Mass concludes with the final commendation. It is a final farewell by members of the community. As a profound act of respect for the deceased, whom we now entrust to the tender and merciful love of God, the casket is incensed, signifying the respect we have for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. A final prayer is then prayed over the deceased, commending them into God’s hands, affirming our belief that those who have died in Christ will share in Christ’s Resurrection over death.

The Rite of Committal (sometimes called ‘The Burial’)

The Rite of Committal 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.