Catholic funerals have a rich history and are steeped in tradition according to Catholic Canon Law. When it comes to funerals, the Church’s first priority is to pray for the soul of the deceased in a prescribed set of rituals:
- the Vigil,
- the Funeral Mass,
- and the Committal (or burial).
When attending a Catholic funeral, you may want to acquaint yourself with each of these rites in addition to any traditional funeral observances.
The Vigil Service is typically held the evening before the funeral to pray for and remember the deceased, celebrate his/her life and give eulogies. It is often held during the visitation at a funeral home and is a prayer service led by a priest or deacon. It’s a time to gather together to support the family and pray for strength and consolation.
The Funeral Mass
The Roman Catholic funeral mass is filled with symbolism and typically has four distinct components: Eucharist, Prayer, Hymns and Rites of Burial. The Eucharist, otherwise known as Holy Communion, is the central point of the mass since it is one of the pillars of the Catholic faith.
The Rites of Burial have been used for centuries in Catholic ceremonies, however, the prayers and hymns may differ for each funeral. If you are not Catholic, be respectful of the rituals, don’t isolate yourself and don’t openly say a prayer from a different religion for the deceased. Be aware that this mass is an act of worship not only to recognize the deceased but to focus on the life and death of Christ as it pertains to the faith.
Rite of Committal
If you have attended the Funeral Mass, then it is expected that you will travel to the cemetery, where the body will be interred. There, the priest will perform another short service graveside and the casket will be lowered into the ground. Catholics place a great deal of importance on the body and consider it a temple, so the burial of the body is just as important and symbolic as the Mass.
This is the final act of the community in caring for the body. After the site is blessed, the body is committed to the earth with additional prayers. It symbolizes hope and concludes the Rites of Burial.
While cremation within the Catholic faith is not forbidden, there are still those that frown upon it. According to a recent release of guidelines from the Vatican (as of 10/2016), cremains should never be scattered, kept at home or divided up between family and friends. Those remains must be stored in a “sacred place” such as church cemetery or crypt… and they should not be preserved in other objects such as jewelry or mementos.
Additionally, Canon Law states that the funeral mass cannot be performed if the cremains are present (typically, the body is present for the funeral mass). If cremation is requested, required, or otherwise called for in a Catholic ceremony, it is general practice in these rare cases that cremation takes place after the Funeral Mass has been performed.
Cremation is often a simpler and less expensive option since it doesn’t require a gravesite, headstone or embalming. Also, while religious traditions are deeply held, cremation offers a more flexible timeframe to plan and celebrate a personal memorial with loved ones who may be living in different locations. It can also be seen as a more environmentally friendly option than traditional burials. Cremation has been around a very long time: it has been in practice since 3,000 B.C. and there is some evidence as early as 8,000 B.C. in China.
Catholic Keepsakes Options
Many people find solace in having a keepsake urn (one that contains a portion of the cremation) however, a keepsake does not need to contain any of the cremains. There are many ways to have a keepsake as a reminder of your loved one in your home:
- You can place a treasured photo or special item of your loved one in a prominent place
- Create a custom keepsake urn (without filling it with any cremains) that reminds you of a hobby or passion your loved one held dear
- You can share a piece of jewelry specially crafted to share with a few close friends who have touched your lives in lasting ways
Despite what the Vatican is regulating for Catholics, cremation will remain a viable option for many people. Regardless of how or where you choose to store the ashes, custom and decorative urns still provide a lasting memorial to your loved one and a special keepsake you can share with family and friends.