Catholic funeral and burial rites

The cross in a Catholic cemetery, such as this one in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Montrose, Mo., reminds us of Christ’s victory over death, our own salvation and hope of heaven. (Key file photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — Next week the Catholic Church celebrates two great feasts, All Saints Day on Nov. 1, followed immediately by All Souls Day. All Saints commemorates those who died in God’s grace and friendship, but have not been canonized saints (who each have their own feast day). All Souls Day commemorates all those who have died in God’s grace and friendship yet are still in need of purification before entering Heaven.

Christians usually speak of their dead as “enjoying new life in Heaven,” and pray for them to achieve that new life as soon as possible. Father Richard Rocha, Kansas City-St. Joseph Vocations Director and pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish said, “We pray for the faithful departed, those who have been baptized, but who need to be completely purified of all stain of sin before they come into full union with God in Heaven. In other words, most of us.”

All Souls Day, celebrated liturgically on Nov. 2, was formally instituted in about 998 by St. Odilo, the fifth abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Cluny. The practice spread through Benedictine monasteries in France and then to other monasteries in Europe. It was accepted by the Vatican in the 14th century. In the Western Church the liturgical celebrations of the dead take place on Nov. 1 with the feast of All Saints, followed by the feast of All Souls on Nov. 2. In recent times, the entire month of November has become associated with the tradition of prayer for the dead; books or lists of the dead are placed near the altar during the celebration of the Mass.

The Church’s teaching about Purgatory (the place of purification), is explained in number 1030 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter heaven.”

Deacon Ralph Wehner

Deacon Ralph Wehner, of the diocesan Office of Worship, said, “The funeral rites of the Catholic Church offer hope, always. If there was no hope for salvation and the joy of heaven, those left behind would be inconsolable.”

The Second Vatican Council declared that the “Catholic Church confidently proclaims that God has created each person for eternal life and that Jesus, the Son of God, by his death and resurrection, has broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity.” But, Deacon Wehner reminded, funeral rites must be conducted carefully, so as to not canonize the deceased. “God has proclaimed those in Heaven saints,” he said, “but we on earth don’t know the disposition of the soul, only God knows. At the moment of death, the soul goes to God for judgment, and then either to heaven, purgatory for cleansing, or hell. There is a great possibility that the majority of us will spend some time in purgatory.” Thus the Church urges the living to pray for the living and the dead, especially those in purgatory.

“At the death of a Christian,” Vatican II states, “whose life of faith was begun in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life. The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the sacrament of the Eucharist.” That, in a nutshell, explains Catholic teaching of funeral and committal rites.

The vigil or wake may take place either the night before the Mass of Christian Burial and committal or right before the Mass. The wake, or vigil as the church calls it, is an ancient practice possibly derived from a similar Jewish custom of a prayerful vigil over the body of the deceased. Among Medieval monks the vigil was seen as beneficial to the dead. By appointing relays of monks to follow one another, it was certain that the deceased would never be left alone without prayer.

In the more recent past, the body of the deceased was prepared by the family and lay in state in his or her home, where visitors would come to watch by, “wake,” the dead. Funeral homes developed from this practice. While many families still use the services of a funeral home, more and more, they are electing to hold the vigil or wake at the parish church, where the body will remain until the Mass, whether it immediately follows or is held the next day.

The Church states unequivocally that eulogies to the deceased take place during the vigil, never during the Mass of Christian Burial. There are three distinct places for the funeral rites and prayers to take place — the vigil or wake, the Mass and the committal at the cemetery.

The priest celebrating the Mass of Christian Burial may choose to wear vestments of traditional black, violet or purple and, more commonly in the last 40 years or so, white. The rites themselves, Deacon Wehner said, maintain the same basic elements as they did in the past, only updated. According to the Order of Christian Funerals, “the Christian faithful are unequivocally confronted by the mystery of life and death when they are faced with the presence of the body of one who has died.” Seeing the body of a loved one or friend, or even a casual acquaintance, brings to mind personal stories, bonds of family or friendship, conversations and acts of kindness and faith of that person. The church believes that the human body is inextricably associated with the human person.

The body of a deceased Catholic is also the body “once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation and fed with the Bread of Life” at the Eucharist, as the Order of Christian Funerals says. Therefore the church’s reverence for the sacredness of the human body has elements that are both natural and supernatural. The Order of Christian Funerals also states “The body brings forcefully to mind the conviction that the human body is in Christ a temple of the Holy Spirit and destined for glory at the resurrection of the dead.” Thus, traditionally, care is taken to prepare bodies of the deceased for a burial that befits their dignity, in expectation of their resurrection in Christ.

Father Rocha concurred. “The Catholic Church’s practice of burial goes back to early Christian days,” he said. “A strong belief in the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, as well as the belief in the resurrection of the body, support the Church’s continued reverence for the human body. From early Christian days cremation was viewed as a pagan practice and a denial of the doctrine of the Resurrection. That’s why cremation was expressly forbidden by the Catholic Church until recent years.”

Cremation is now permitted by the church, but it clearly prefers that the body of the deceased is present at the funeral rites, which include the vigil or wake and the Mass of Christian Burial. “The Church commends its dead to God’s mercy through the funeral rites, including burial,” Deacon Wehner said. “Giving permission for cremation does not change the fact that it prefers the whole, intact body be buried.”

When cremation is chosen by the deceased or the family, the Church urges that the body be present for the Mass of Christian Burial and the act of cremation take place after the Mass. Thus the vigil for the deceased, related rites and prayers, followed by the funeral liturgy, are celebrated as usual. At the conclusion of the Mass, the Rite of Final Commendation and Farewell takes place, using an alternate form of dismissal. Then the act of cremation takes place. In the Rite of Committal, the cremated remains of the deceased are reverently taken to the place of burial or entombment and an alternate form of the words of committal are used. In many Catholic cemeteries there are usually two ways of committal — burial or entombment in a columbarium.

“The ashes must be buried or entombed, that is not an option,” Deacon Wehner said. “Retaining or scattering them goes against Catholic theology because it denies the resurrection of the body. We must show the same respect to cremated remains as we show to the body of the deceased. The body was a temple of the Holy Spirit, and incense, blessings and the pall are all signs of respect. We should stop to think: if we wouldn’t do this to the body, scatter pieces all over, why do it with cremains? What we believe is what we practice.”

In certain cases, cremation, commendation and committal are permitted before the funeral liturgy. Following the burial or entombment of the ashes, the family and friends of the deceased join the Catholic community for the funeral liturgy, which is adapted to fit the circumstance. For example, prayers that make no reference to the honoring or burying of the body are chosen instead of prayers which have those themes.

Preplanning a Funeral

When a death takes place, often the surviving family members exist in a fog for several days — stunned, saddened and just going through the motions. Planning a funeral can be exhausting and confusing. With that in mind, Catholic funeral directors encourage people to preplan their final arrangements.

“The death of a loved one is always stressful,” said Mark McGilley of McGilley Memorial Chapels in Kansas City. “Preplanning can significantly reduce the number of difficult decisions that confront loved ones at a time of loss.”

He added that although 70 percent of Americans say they want to minimize the emotional and financial burden their death places on loved ones, only 24 percent have pre-planned their funerals. Obviously death is not something people like to talk about. It was a common school-girl game in Victorian times to plan funerals and inscriptions on headstones, but nowadays, a deep-seated cultural aversion to discussing death is often at the root of people’s failure to pre-plan. No one wants to think about death, their own or that of a loved one any sooner than they must.

There are a number of reasons for preplanning funeral and burial services. Some people have definite preferences concerning the service, casket and other items, and want their families to have a say in those decisions. Others want to save their families from having to make important decisions at a difficult, confusing time, especially if they themselves had experienced the emotion and anxiety inherent in making those selections for a loved one.

These could include whether a traditional funeral and burial is preferred or cremation. It also includes making decisions on specifics ahead of time, such as the church and funeral home, cemetery, flowers, clothing, people to notify and other important details.

Even if a person elects not to prefinance their funeral and cemetery choices, writing down those choices is important. That way, Steve Pierce of Muehlebach Funeral Home said, “your children aren’t trying to second guess what you might want or not want. The emotional impact of trying to do that while coping with the loss of a loved one is unbelievable. Prearranging is one of the greatest gifts a parent or grandparent can give to their families.”

McGilley added that regardless of whether prearrangements are funded, a person should be sure and let loved ones know that the final arrangements are preplanned and where the plans are.

There is a simple three-step plan people can follow to preplan.

• Decide on the service, religious elements, size and if there are any unique elements you wish to incorporate. Pierce said there are items, including photographs, videos, mementos that can be displayed to personalize the wake. Photographs may be present in the church during the funeral liturgy.

Final disposition of the body or cremated remains if cremation is preferred, is important. A person should consider the purchase of cemetery property and inquire about options for memorializing, such as a headstone, and burial or entombment of cremains and engraving of the person’s name where the cremains are entombed.

• Shop around and select a funeral home, whether the wake will take place there or in a church, as the funeral home prepares the body of the deceased for the funeral rites.

• There are options to funding prearrangements. It is not necessary to prepay to preplan, McGilley said. Preplanning allows a person to pay in the future at today’s prices.

According to Steve Pierce, along with locking in costs, pre-financing ensures the funds to pay for services are available when they are needed. Preplanning funeral/burial arrangements has become an accepted element of estate planning.

There are huge financial savings to be had in prefunding funeral arrangements, but the main reason people do it is to lessen the burden on their survivors.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Romans 4:25), proclaimed that Jesus Christ, “was put to death for our sins and raised to life to justify us.” This is at the center of the Catholic Church’s life, giving power to all its activities. In Romans 6: 3-5, St. Paul says that “You have been taught that when we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized into His death; in other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with Him and joined Him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life. If in union with Christ we have imitated His death, we shall also imitate Him in his resurrection.” Catholic funeral rites and prayers for the dead, on All Souls Day and beyond, are part of the great mystery of life and death for the faithful.


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October 27, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph