Roman Catholic funerals
The aim of a Catholic funeral is to honour and pray for the person who has died and to care for and support those who are grieving.
This care is focused on remembering and celebrating the death and subsequent resurrection of Christ and how this mystery offers Catholics hope.
Every Catholic, unless (s)he is specifically excluded due to Church/canonical law, is entitled to a Catholic funeral.
The model for Catholic funerals is the Easter journey of Jesus Christ from death to resurrection. This is why Catholics are encouraged to celebrate the funeral in three stages: prayer vigil or ‘wake’; funeral liturgy/Mass; and committal.
At the vigil and the funeral, non-Catholics are welcome to participate or to sit and witness the ceremonies silently; only Catholics are invited to receive communion at Mass.
While many Catholics celebrate a funeral in the three stages above, this is not always possible or appropriate to the circumstances.
Catholic funeral practice varies considerably, so your local parish Priest will help you to navigate local Church practice and procedure.
It is now acceptable for Catholics to be cremated, but a decision will need to be made about whether to have a funeral Mass in a church beforehand.
A non-Catholic spouse can have a Catholic funeral if they requested it, or if they showed a particular attachment to the Catholic parish.
Prayer Vigil or Wake
The form of the service is a simple Liturgy of the Word of God or Evening Prayer. The Vigil is generally led by a Priest or Deacon, though if none are available a lay person with experience in leading public prayers may be chosen.
This is the main celebration for the person who has died.
Generally the Funeral Mass is celebrated in the church where the deceased was a member, though it may also be celebrated in a Catholic chapel (such as in a nursing home) or in any Catholic church with the Priest’s agreement.
The Funeral Liturgy can, however, be celebrated in a crematorium or cemetery chapel.
Two forms are possible: a funeral Mass (also called the Requiem Mass), or a funeral liturgy outside Mass.
If it is requested and approved, the Funeral Mass may be celebrated for more than one person at a time.
The Funeral Mass may be celebrated any hour of any day except for: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday or any Sunday in Advent, Lent and the Easter Season.
Only a Priest or Deacon is allowed to preach the homily during a funeral liturgy.
The rite of committal usually immediately follows the funeral liturgy, either at the graveside (which is normally in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery) or at the crematorium.
When a body is cremated the funeral liturgy is concluded, with the interring of ashes some time afterwards.
There is no longer any prohibition on Catholics being cremated. Assuming that a decision has already been made between cremation or burial, the main choice to be made is whether to have a Funeral Mass at the Church beforehand or not.
If in doubt, talk to your parish Priest about this, and other details of the service.
The Church believes the cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect as the human body from which they come.
Scattering ashes on the ground is not encouraged as it deprives loved ones the opportunity to visit the remains where they can pray and reflect upon the life and memory of the deceased.
Ashes are therefore buried or entombed in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.
Some non-Catholics may also be buried in Catholic cemeteries if they expressed a relationship to the Church and a desire to do so, or if a non-Catholic member of a Catholic family (or his/her family) expressed a desire for the family to be buried together.
The Prayer Vigil/Wake is a service either at the home of the person who has died or in church, before the day of the funeral. You can ask your Parish Priest for advice.
Generally the Funeral Liturgy/Mass is celebrated in the church where the person who has died worshipped, though it may also be celebrated in a Catholic chapel (such as in a nursing home) or in any Catholic church with the Priest’s agreement.
Sometimes people may celebrate the Funeral Liturgy in a crematorium or cemetery chapel.
Length of funeral and other 'rules'
The length of Mass is something to discuss with your local Priest, but it usually lasts around an hour.
If the service is in a crematorium, time will be limited to the slots available. Discuss this either with the funeral director or with the crematorium when arranging the service.
The funeral director will give valuable advice based on experience of the funerals he or she has helped organise.
Floral arrangements sent to the funeral home or to the family’s residence and donations for Masses to be offered in memory of the deceased are fitting expressions of condolence at a Catholic funeral.
Secular music, readings and other features
There are opportunities for personal choices in each of the three stages of the funeral. Create your funeral playlist now.
Non-religious poems and songs often fit best in the prayer vigil, but there is also an opportunity for 'Words in Remembrance' towards the end of the funeral liturgy.
Care should be taken that the words of any material are in keeping with the Christian faith.
Order of Service
Introductory rites: the Priest greets the congregation and says: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." He leads the coffin and congregation down the church aisle. Holy water is sprinkled and there is an opening hymn and prayer.
Liturgy of the Word: Bible sermons are read out, as well as a homily (a commentary that follows a scripture reading) and a Psalm.
Liturgy of the Eucharist: after a Eucharist prayer, Holy Communion is received. Mass is optional.
Final commendation: there may be an opportunity after Mass for some words to be said about the deceased by a loved one. Prayers are said and the coffin is taken out of the church.
Rite of Committal: prayers are said at the final resting place - at the graveside or before the curtains then close around the coffin at the crematorium, although mourners can request that the coffin remains in view until they have departed.
At a later point the ashes will be given to the family in an urn and a further brief service may be held before their burial.
Things to discuss with your Priest
- Who will be the pallbearers?
- Who will do the readings?
- Are there any special readings you want?
- Are there special prayers you would like included?
- Are there special songs/hymns or music that you want to suggest?
- How much are the church fees?
- Are there other fees, for example for the organist?
- Should you bring young children?
- What about a headstone to mark the grave?
- Are there rules about what memorials you can choose?
Should we have a gathering afterwards?
A reception gathering or wake is often organised by members of the local Catholic community and family following a funeral. This is something you may wish to discuss with your local Priest.
A memorial service, some weeks after the funeral, can enable more people to attend than were at the funeral.
A memorial event, with a less religious element, can be a more celebratory way to remember the parted. This is something to discuss with your Priest.
Useful contacts and websites
The Catholic Enquiry Office of England and Wales can help you contact your nearest Catholic Church. firstname.lastname@example.org. (SB-L)