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Roman Catholic funeral

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Roman Catholic funeral

A Roman Catholic funeral is a funeral rite in use in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. Within the Church, they may be referred to as ecclesiastical funerals. In Catholic funerals, the Church seeks firstly to offer the Mass for the benefit of the soul of the deceased, that the temporal effects of sin in Purgatory may be extinguished and, secondly, to provide condolence and comfort for the deceased's family and exhort them to pray, along with the Church, for the soul of the departed. The practice in the Eastern Catholic Churches is basically similar but takes account of different traditions and follows different liturgical norms.

Canon law on Catholic funerals

In general, Roman Catholics are to be given a Catholic funeral on their death.[1] Catechumens are to be considered as Catholics as regards funerals,[2] and the local ordinary may permit unbaptized children whose parents intended to have them baptized to be given a Catholic funeral.[3] The local ordinary may also, in certain extraordinary circumstances, permit a baptized person who was not a Catholic to be given a Catholic funeral.[4]

On the other hand, Catholic burial rites are to be refused to the following, unless they gave some sign of repentance before death:

  1. Persons publicly known to be guilty of apostasy, heresy or schism;
  2. Those who asked to be cremated for anti-Christian motives;
  3. Manifest sinners, if the granting of Church funeral rites to them would cause scandal to Catholics.[5]

Other rules of canon law concern the church in which the funeral rites are to be celebrated,[6] the funeral dues that are payable to a priest for conducting the funeral and the cemetery in which they are to be buried.[7]

The ordinary forms of the Roman Rite in use before the Second Vatican Council are now extraordinary forms. That of 1962 is explicitly authorized for continued use, under certain conditions, by the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Funerals are one of the occasions on which this document states: "For faithful and priests who request it, the pastor should also allow celebrations in this extraordinary form for special circumstances.[8]

According to the liturgical norms and canon laws relating to the celebration of funeral Masses, they are usually not celebrated on Sunday (unless it is during the afternoon), and are not generally celebrated on other solemnities or major feast days. They are normally not to be celebrated on Ash Wednesday or during Holy Week from Palm Sunday through Wednesday. They are also discouraged during the final two weeks of Lent and Advent, and are strongly discouraged during the last week of those two seasons and during the eight days that follow Easter and Christmas (their Octaves). They are not celebrated at all during the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday), during Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, and on January 1 (St. Mary's principal feast), and are also not done during the day preceding Christmas Day and the day preceding January 1. However, the Pope (and in some instances, the local ordinary) can make exceptions to some of the latter absolute prohibitions (Pope Benedict XVI allowed his Vatican Secretary of State, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, to perform a single Funeral Mass for a group of the deceased on Good Friday, when no Mass at all is normally offered, after the L'Aquila earthquake).


The following information concerns the Roman Rite, not other Latin liturgical rites.

A funeral Mass is a form of Requiem Mass, so called because of the first word of what in earlier forms of the Roman Rite was the only Introit (entrance antiphon) allowed: Réquiem ætérnam dona eis, Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat eis. (Eternal rest give to them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them). This is still the first entrance antiphon given in the Roman Missal as revised in 1970, which provides alternative formulas also.

The bier holding the body is positioned centrally close to the sanctuary of the church. A deceased lay person's feet are towards the altar, but a priest's are away from the altar,[9] positions reminiscent of their relative positions when alive and celebrating Mass.

A funeral Mass concludes with the rite of commendation of the dead person, in which the coffin containing the body is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. In earlier forms of the Roman Rite this is called the absolution at the bier (absolutio ad feretrum).

In earlier forms of the Roman Rite, a Requiem Mass differs in several ways from the usual Mass in that form. Some parts that were of relatively recent origin, including some that have been excluded in the 1970 revision, are omitted. Examples are the psalm Iudica at the start of Mass, the prayer said by the priest before reading the Gospel (or the blessing of the deacon, if a deacon reads it), and the first of the two prayers of the priest for himself before receiving Communion.[10] Other omissions include the use of incense at the Introit and the Gospel, the kiss of peace, lit candles held by acolytes when a deacon chants the Gospel, and blessings. Black is the obligatory liturgical colour of the vestments in the earlier forms, while the later form allows a choice between black and violet, and in some countries, such as England and Wales, white.[11] The sequence Dies Iræ, recited or sung between the Tract and the Gospel, is an obligatory part of the Requiem Mass in the earlier forms. As its opening words, Dies irae (Day of wrath), indicate, this poetic composition speaks of the Day of Judgment in fearsome terms; it then appeals to Jesus for mercy.

The various Catholic religious observances surrounding mortal remains can be divided into three stages.

Conveyance of the body to the church

The first stage involves the parish priest and other clergy going to the house of the deceased. One cleric carries the cross and another carries a vessel of holy water. Before the coffin is removed from the house it is sprinkled with the holy water. The priest, with his assistants, says the psalm De profundis with the antiphon Si iniquitates. Then the procession sets out for the church. The cross-bearer goes first, followed by members of the clergy carrying lighted candles. The priest walks immediately before the coffin, and the friends of the deceased and others walk behind it.

As they leave the house, the priest intones the antiphon Exsultabunt Domino, and then the psalm Miserere is recited or chanted in alternate verses by the cantors and clergy. On reaching the church the antiphon Exsultabunt is repeated. As the body is placed "in the middle of the church," the responsorial Subvenite is recited.

Historical precedence provides that if the corpse is a layman, the feet are to be turned towards the altar. If the corpse is a priest, then the position is reversed, the head being towards the altar. The earliest reference to this is in Johann Burchard's "Diary". Burchard was the master of ceremonies to Pope Innocent VIII and Pope Alexander VI.

A rule also exists that both before the altar and in the grave, the feet of all Christians should be pointed to the East. This custom is alluded to by Bishop Hildebert at the beginning of the twelfth century,[12] and its symbolism is discussed by Guillaume Durand. "A man ought so to be buried", he says, "that while his head lies to the West his feet are turned to the East…"[13] The idea seems to be that the bishop (or priest) in death should occupy the same position in the church as during life, facing his people who he taught and blessed in Christ's name.

Ceremony in the church

The second stage is a cycle of prayers, the funeral Mass, and absolution. Candles are lit around the coffin, and they are allowed to burn throughout this stage.

Funeral Hymns

On Eagle's Wings by Michael Joncas is loosely based on Psalm 91. Often performed before or after funeral masses, this song conveys the idea of people being raised up to heaven. This song was performed at many funerals after the September 11 attacks. Ave Maria is another popular song that is normally sung during the final procession.


The prayers offered are the Office of the Dead. Throughout the prayers, certain omissions are made. For example, each psalm ends with Requiem aeternam instead of the Gloria Patri.

The Mass for the Dead (Missa de Requie) is chiefly distinguished from ordinary Masses by certain omissions. Some of these may be due to the fact that this Mass was formerly regarded as supplementary to the Mass of the day. In other cases it preserves the tradition of a more primitive age. The suppression of the Alleluia, Gloria in excelsis, and the Gloria Patri seems to point to a sense of the incongruity of joyful themes in the presence of God's searching and inscrutable judgments.[14] In the early Christian ages, however, it would seem that the Alleluia, especially in the East, was regarded as especially appropriate to funerals.


The absolution of the dead was removed from the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, and replaced with the Commendation, when the Mass of Paul VI was promulgated following the Second Vatican Council. However, the absolution of the dead continues to remain part of the funeral service of the Tridentine Mass.

The absolution of the dead is a series of prayers for pardon that are said over the body of a deceased Catholic following a Requiem Mass and before burial. The absolution of the dead does not forgive sins or confer the sacramental absolution of the Sacrament of Penance. Rather, it is a series of prayers to God that the person's soul will not have to suffer the temporal punishment in purgatory due for sins which were forgiven during the person's life.

During the absolution, the Libera me, Domine is sung while the priest incenses the coffin and sprinkles it with holy water. The prayer for absolution is said by the priest, and then the In paradisum is sung while the body is carried from the church.

Ceremony by the graveside

After the absolution, the body is carried to the grave. The tomb or burial plot is then blessed, if it has not been blessed previously. A grave newly dug in an already consecrated cemetery is considered blessed, and requires no further consecration. However, a mausoleum erected above ground or even a brick chamber beneath the surface is regarded as needing blessing when used for the first time. This blessing is short and consists only of a single prayer after which the body is again sprinkled with holy water and incensed. Apart from this, the service at the graveside is very brief.

The final petition made by the priest is "May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace." At that point, the graveside ceremony and the burial is complete.

See also


External links

  • Chris Aridas, The Catholic Funeral: The Church's Ministry of Hope ISBN 0-8245-1750-4
  • Catholic Funeral Care
  • Catholic Scriptural Texts for Funerals
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