Roman Catholic Funeral Service Rituals: Summary & Reference Guide

Catholic funeral customs

Quick Reference
Length of Service
30 – 60 minutes
Flowers?
Yes
Food?
Yes
Dress Code? (Men/Women)
Dark & Somber / Men: Jacket & Tie
Recording Devices?
Only with permission
Source of Readings?
New American Standard Bible
Open Casket?
Depends
Return to Work? (Days)
7
No. of Days to Mourn?
7

“Roman Catholic” refers to the Christian church that recognizes the Pope and Vatican as the authority and representation of God’s teachings. Today, there are about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world.

Catholics teach that Jesus died to redeem man from sin. They believe in immortality and that in death a person may be judged to go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. In Purgatory, God’s purifying mercy eventually obtains for the deceased a place in Heaven. Unlike some Protestant beliefs, Roman Catholics are not assured before death that they will go to heaven, and so mourners pray for their deceased loved one’s entrance into heaven. They believe in the eventual resurrection of the body and the reuniting of the body with the soul at Christ’s second coming.

The first official who should be called upon the death of a Roman Catholic is the person’s priest. If the death was expected, the priest may have already attended the person and performed the last rites, or final prayers and ministrations preceding death. The next call should be to the funeral home. Embalming is generally practiced so that a vigil, or period of viewing, may be held.

When attending a vigil or viewing, you will see a kneeler beside the casket; it is customary to kneel beside the casket to pray for a few minutes. You should pay your respects to the family with words of hope for the resurrection and sympathy, and plan to stay for at least 10 minutes. The immediate family members generally stay for the entire vigil. Because the traditional Requiem Mass does not permit eulogies, the eulogy may be given at the viewing or at after-interment gatherings, rather than during the funeral mass.

A Catholic church service is called a “Mass” and tends to be quite formal or liturgical. A Roman Catholic funeral or traditional Requiem Mass will be held in a Catholic church or cathedral rather than a funeral home. The funeral mass follows a strictly formal, liturgical pattern of prayers, scripture readings, homily (sermon), and Holy Communion. For example, you will see a priest greeting the coffin at the door of the church and sprinkling it with holy water, and at the end of the service, the priest passes around the body twice, sprinkling it with holy water and incensing it. Some Catholic churches allow a slightly less formal service, including personal reflections and remembrances of the deceased, special music performances, and other aspects that are non-traditional.

Catholic funerals tend to be somewhat somber, respectful occasions, with the mourners wearing dark clothing. If you attend a service in which there is an open casket, you will notice that rosary beads have been placed in the hands of the deceased. A Catholic funeral may have either an open or closed casket, or the deceased may be cremated, although until 1997 the practice of cremation was discouraged by church tradition, since that was originally a pagan practice, and the body is not considered by Catholics to be simply an empty husk or container. Today, instead of requiring that the body be present at the Funeral Mass, the church allows the presence of the deceased’s ashes, although it is traditional to have the body at the Funeral Mass, with cremation following.

After the service, the remains are usually transported to a cemetery, where there is a formal committal or burial ceremony, presided over by the priest. If the deceased has been cremated, the church requires that the remains be buried in a Catholic cemetery or mausoleum, rather than scattered or stored in one’s own home.

Contributor: Jenny Mertes

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Also see: Christian Overview

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