Planning a Catholic Funeral
by Monseigneur Pat Byrne and Father Ray Rick
used with permission
I'm the Pastor of a relatively small Parish in Ontario. I have had to deal with two unusually difficult funerals this week. One thing I am encountering more and more these days is the request for a "private" ceremony or a "private Mass." To the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing. But try telling that to a grieving family, especially one bent on minimizing everything they can.
I co-authored the following text a few years ago in the hopes that it would help with the Catholic understanding of death and the various parts of the Catholic funeral ritual for people who were thinking about a funeral. Father Ray Rick.
A funeral is a time of sadness and mourning. But for Christians it is also a time to rejoice, for the Lord Jesus has won a great victory over death and made it possible for us to pass through to new and eternal life. This is our unwavering hope.
In a Catholic funeral we pray that our deceased brother or sister be admitted into paradise. We also derive strength from family and friends and lend our support to others in what can be a very difficult time.
If you are making the final arrangements for yourself, you may be tempted to spare your friends and relatives the pain and expense of long, elaborate funeral ceremonies. But keep in mind that they may need this opportunity to express their loss and their support for each other.
If you are making arrangements for the funeral of a relative or friend, your funeral director and your priest can help you choose the appropriate elements to make it a meaningful celebration of trust and hope in Jesus Christ.
Praying For The Dead
The Church has always encouraged prayer for its deceased members. This practice can be traced back to Old Testament times when the Maccabbean brothers prayed for their fallen colleagues with a view to the resurrection of the body.
Ever since the second century our greatest prayer, the Mass, has been offered for the repose of the souls of the dead.
Praying for our deceased brothers and sisters reflects our Christian conviction that death is not the end of our existence; it is a point of change, and prayer to our merciful God on behalf of the dead will benefit both us and them.
Our relationships with our friends and relatives do not dissolve with death. We honour them by giving their bodies a dignified Christian burial and we assist them in their journey to heaven by our prayers. Once they enter into the presence of God they pray for us in return with great power.
Preparing For Death
As followers of Jesus Christ, we often recall his teaching that our true homeland is in heaven and we are only pilgrims in this world. So we constantly prepare for our future life in heaven by the way we live as Christians now.
At the onset of illness, the priest is called and the anointing of the sick is celebrated to receive any health God may wish to restore of mind, heart or body. When death threatens, one may receive holy communion, called "viaticum", which is food for the journey into everlasting life.
Elements Of The Funeral
The Catholic funeral has a number of elements which enable the Christian community to draw strength from one another and from God.
When one of its members dies, the Church is prepared to offer prayers after the death, at a gathering in the presence of the body, a vigil or wake, the procession to the church, the funeral Mass or Liturgy of the Word, and the committal at the cemetery.
Meaning Of The Funeral Mass
Many of the minor elements of the Catholic funeral may be adapted or even eliminated to suit the needs of the family. The funeral Mass, however, occupies a place of particular importance and should not be omitted casually.
The Eucharist is of central importance in our spiritual lives, it is also of central importance in our celebration of Christian death. At the last supper, on the night before he died for us, our Saviour transformed bread and wine into his own body and blood which he offered to his Father as a sacrifice acceptable to him. This is the Eucharistic sacrifice he asked us to celebrate as a continuing memorial of his death and resurrection. It is a pledge of future glory which sustains us all through life and is especially significant as we face the death of someone dear to us.
If some special consideration suggests that an alternative type of liturgy is more appropriate, a priest will be happy to discuss the details with the bereaved family.
A eulogy, which is not focused on God, is better given at the wake and not at Mass.
Active involvement by everyone increases the power of our prayer, drawing us closer to God and each other. So it is important that music selected for the funeral be found in the books provided in the church for everyone to use.
After the Lord Jesus surrendered his Spirit into the hands of his Father, his disciples carefully prepared his body according to the Jewish ritual and placed it in a new tomb. By the three days he spent there, he made holy the graves of all those who believe in him and by his rising again we are restored to eternal life. As his followers, we too place the dead bodies or cremated remains of our brothers and sisters in the earth with the expectation that God will raise them to life again with the glorified Christ.
Our Christian burial places are blessed for the purpose of holding the body or cremated remains until the resurrection on the last day. Therefore, such a consecrated tomb is the most fitting place of rest we can give our beloved relatives and friends.