Catholic Funerals Frequently Asked Questions
"...A Catholic funeral needs to leave mourners with reason to hope, not just memories of the deceased. The funeral liturgy affirms that “in Christ, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection has dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality..."
"...The Funeral Liturgy comes a few days after death when the initial shock of loss has subsided a little. It is the public ceremony which acquaintances, colleagues and more distant family will attend along with the immediate family and close friends. The Funeral Liturgy has a formal structure with a set pattern of readings, homily, prayers, symbols and gestures. It may include the celebration of Eucharist depending on family and other circumstances...."
At Liturgy Brisbane we receive many inquiries about funerals, mainly from those in parishes who work with families to prepare them, but also from people planning a relative’s funeral – or even their own. There are a few issues that arise frequently.
Funeral directors encourage the use of wording such as “The family and friends of N. are invited to a celebration of her life”. Certainly, we give thanks to God for the one who has died, but a Catholic funeral is about giving thanks above all for Christ who died and rose “so that we might have eternal life”. We offer praise and thanks that this person has been caught up in God’s saving love and celebrate the new life that God has called the deceased to share. It always puzzles me that funeral notices still frequently use the out-dated term “Requiem Mass” instead of the correct titles “Funeral Mass” or “Funeral Liturgy”.
Multiple eulogies have become a feature of funerals, including those conducted in Catholic Churches. Some people no longer attend funerals because they know that it is likely to last for up to two hours and include several long, repetitive, overly-emotional eulogies that unrealistically depict the deceased as an absolute saint.
The ritual book for Catholic funerals, called the Order of Christian Funerals, says this about eulogies:
A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy. Through the homily, the community should receive the consolation and strength to face the death of one of its members with a hope that has been nourished by the proclamation of the saving word of God. member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins.
A Catholic funeral needs to leave mourners with reason to hope, not just memories of the deceased. The funeral liturgy affirms that “in Christ, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection has dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.
Symbols on Coffin
Several types of symbols are used at a Christian funeral. Some are baptismal: the coffin is sprinkled with water and clothed in the white pall of new life in Christ. Some of the symbols are paschal: the Easter candle, symbol of the risen Christ, is placed beside the coffin. Other symbols such as a bible or cross speak of our life in Christ. Symbols of the deceased’s favourite sports and pastimes are best placed elsewhere, perhaps near the condolence book at the church entrance.
A Catholic funeral
Lex orandi, lex credendi – the way we pray expresses what we believe. If a Catholic funeral is no different from a “secular” funeral, we can hardly blame outsiders from wondering what difference being a Christian makes.
A Catholic funeral offers worship, praise and thanksgiving to God, the creator of all life; it commends the deceased person to God’s merciful love; it affirms the bonds between the living and the dead in the communion of saints; it brings hope and consolation to the bereaved; it celebrates Christ’s Passover and our participation in it through Christian initiation.
A Herald Sun survey in Melbourne a few years ago found that AFL Club theme songs were the most commonly requested songs at funerals. Others included My Way, Time to Say Goodbye, and Bette Midler’s version of The Wind Beneath My Wings.
In response to this growing trend, the Archdiocese of Melbourne issued guidelines for Catholic funerals, which included the statement that secular items such as romantic ballads, pop or rock music, political songs or football club songs are never to be sung or played at a Catholic funeral.
Of course, this was immediately met with derision and accusations that the Church is out of touch with popular culture and insensitive to the feelings of the bereaved.
Clergy and others involved in preparing Catholic funerals have to very carefully tread the path between being pastoral and ensuring that the focus of funerals is on commending the deceased to God, as our faith demands. While a place might be found for an appropriate secular song at a Catholic funeral, it is the message of Christian hope that should predominate in the music chosen. Most parishes do consider requests for contemporary music and try to accommodate a special song for a loved one, while keeping in mind the sacredness of the occasion.
The following statements from a discussion paper on Celebrating a Christian Funeral in a Catholic Church prepared by the National Liturgical Commission several years ago offer some helpful guidance (OCF refers to the Church’s ritual book for funerals, the Order of Christian Funerals):
Music is integral to the funeral rites – for the vigil, the funeral liturgy, funeral processions and the rite of committal (OCF 32). Music has the power to console and uplift the mourners and to strengthen the unity of the assembly in faith and love. Music chosen should express the paschal mystery of Jesus and relate to the readings from scripture (OCF 30, 31).
Considering what all the people will be able to sing well will be one of the criteria of choice. The assembly’s full participation in singing the hymns, responses and acclamations may be assisted by a cantor and/or a choir (OCF 33).
The OCF encourages parishes to ensure that an organist or other instrumentalist, a cantor, and if possible a choir assist the assembly’s full participation in singing the songs, responses, and acclamations at funerals.
It stresses the importance of the song of farewell “which affirms hope and trust in the paschal mystery and is the climax of the rite of final commendation. It should be sung to a melody simple enough for all to sing.” I always find it odd when the “song” of farewell is recited as happens not infrequently!
Secular music which had a special significance for the deceased person is best used at the Vigil, particularly during the time of sharing memories about the deceased person. It is also appropriate to use such music after the funeral liturgy, when family and friends gather to continue their remembering of their loved one.
Issues surrounding music at funerals need to be resolved through sensitive pastoral dialogue with the bereaved. Imposing rules without explanation can give offence. The parish minister needs to understand the Church’s rite and the principles it enshrines, and work towards realising the ideals set out in the liturgical books.
About the Funeral Rite
The rites for celebrating a Catholic funeral are contained in the Order of Christian Funerals which was published in Latin in 1969. After a process of re-revision, translation and approval, this official ritual book was issued for use in Australia in 1990.
Three elements were emphasised in the new rites: the importance of the collaboration of the family, the presider and various ministers in their celebration; the necessity of adapting the rites to local culture and the particular circumstances of the deceased and the bereaved; the use of three progressive rites reflecting the various stages of the grieving process.
The ritual book is called the Order of Christian Funerals because it consists of not one rite but a sequence of rites to be used from the moment of death to the final laying to rest. This ritual process allows time for grieving, with each rite taking us a step further along a journey of prayer and faith. Having a serried of rituals to mark stages along this journey also means that no one rite is expected to do everything that must be done at the time of death.
The public rituals that constitute the funeral rite are the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Liturgy and the Rite of Committal. The three rites each have a different purpose. The vigil, as the name suggests, is a time for keeping watch. At the funeral liturgy we give thanks for Christ’s victory over sin and death and for the life of the deceased. The committal is an intense and final act of farewell, commendation and laying to rest.
Vigils are not very common in Australia, which is a pity. Many of the personal things that are added on to the public funeral liturgy belong at the vigil.
The Vigil is intended to be celebrated soon after death has occurred. It is an opportunity for family and friends to come together to express shock and sorrow and to offer condolences. The structure of the Vigil is simple and adaptable. It allows mourners to be consoled by the word of God, to pray together and to share memories. It might be held in a home, church or chapel and in the presence of the body or not.
The Funeral Liturgy comes a few days after death when the initial shock of loss has subsided a little. It is the public ceremony which acquaintances, colleagues and more distant family will attend along with the immediate family and close friends. The Funeral Liturgy has a formal structure with a set pattern of readings, homily, prayers, symbols and gestures. It may include the celebration of Eucharist depending on family and other circumstances.
The Committal is the last of the church’s rituals for marking the death of one of its members. It is an important step in the process of “closure” as the bodily remains of the deceased are committed to the earth and his/her soul to God’s loving mercy.
Problems arise when, as often happens, the three rites are telescoped into one for economic, social or personal reasons. The Funeral Liturgy cannot fulfil successfully the roles of the Vigil and Committal as well as its own. It becomes overloaded, overlong and loses its focus. Abbreviating the rituals of grieving can limit, or even hamper, the process of grieving.