Funerals in the Catholic Church
The following text is reproduced from the leaflet ‘Guidance for those arranging a funeral, Catholic Deanery of St. Albans’
First may we offer you sincere sympathy on your bereavement. Very often people making the arrangements have had no recent experience of preparing a funeral. They are also not always aware of the Church’s requirements. This information is intended to offer guidance for family members involved in preparing a funeral liturgy, and those others who will assist them.
1. Consult the Priest
Go to see the priest who will conduct the funeral, at the earliest opportunity. He will be able to give you guidance on all matters concerning the funeral service. His guidance is especially important if you are going to print an Order of Service for the occasion. It is essential to remember that a ceremony in church, whether a Mass or Service of Prayer, is always an act of worship and is never simply a ‘presentation’ or ‘event’ with those present as observers. Normally a funeral takes the form of a celebration of Mass but this is not always so. A service of prayer may be held at the Crematorium or at the graveside. There is also provision for a vigil of prayer in the home or at the church itself prior to the funeral.
2. Songs and Music
Singing forms a necessary or integral part of worship. As well as being a form of prayer it also acts as a means of including all present in what is taking place. There are a number of hymns that are particularly appropriate. The priest will be able to provide you with a list of hymns suitable for communal singing and appropriate to the occasion. If the parish has no organist one may need to be arranged. A family may wish to engage a soloist and they will need guidance about how what is sung accords with the pattern of the Church’s Funeral Rite.
3. Non-religious Music
This is not permitted in churches. Music of a non-religious kind, whether sung ‘live’ or played on CDs or audiotapes is best suited either for the crematorium or even at the graveside itself. The songs of the liturgy, like the liturgical texts, should be expressions of faith in the saving mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, and appropriate to the part of the liturgy in which they are sung. ‘You’ll never walk alone’ and ‘I did it my way’ and the like, do not have a proper place in the Church’s liturgy and they should not be used. It is possible to include quiet instrumental music so long as its secular associations will not distract from the liturgical prayer proper to the funeral liturgy.
4. The Word of God
Worship in Church always includes passages of God’s Word from the Bible. There will usually be two readings from the Scriptures, or maybe three. The last reading is always from the Gospels. The first may be from either the Old or New Testament. If there are three the first is from the Old Testament and the second from the New Testament. Some of these texts refer explicitly to death and resurrection but families may choose alternative Bible passages at the discretion of the priest.
5. Non-religious Words and Poems
Whilst these texts do have particular associations for people and may be very attractive, they do not fit easily into the normal Catholic Funeral Liturgy. Non-religious poems and texts might come across much better during prayers in the home before or after the funeral liturgy.
6. Personal Tributes
It is sometimes requested that a member of the family or friend be permitted to ‘say something’ in church. This is always a very sensitive issue and needs to be handled carefully. A funeral is a moment of solemnity and it can be very difficult for members of the family to contain their distress. Catholics are not permitted to have addresses of a political nature, and must also always be aware of how any address can cause tension or conflict.
The crematorium or the graveside might be better suited to such an address.
A ‘personal tribute’ should be restricted to the person’s qualities and should be in keeping with the religious nature of the occasion.
If there is to be such a personal tribute in church, the person delivering it needs to consult the priest and should write their text beforehand so that it does not take more than two or three minutes. The text should be no longer than 400 words and should be handed to the priest at least two days before the ceremony. The place in the ceremony for such a tribute is after Holy Communion.
7. Christian Symbols
It is common nowadays for the Christian symbols of the crucifix and a book of the Gospels to be placed on the coffin at the beginning of the ceremony. A member of the family or a friend may place the symbols.
In some churches it is customary to cover the coffin with a white pall representing the white garment at Baptism. Again, a member of the family could do this. Any flowers placed on the coffin will be removed as the coffin is brought into the church and then replaced at the end of the Mass when the pall is removed and the procession leaves the church.
A table will be provided near the front of the church for people to place Mass cards.
It is sometimes requested that the coffin be covered with a flag. The Catholic Funeral Rite specifically does not permit this in church. National flags, or flags or insignia of associations have no place in the funeral liturgy. They may drape the coffin until it comes to the church door, but will then be respectfully removed before the coffin is brought into the church. They may be replaced again as the coffin is taken from the church after the mass, and before it is placed in the hearse.
9. Overnight in Church
Sometimes families request that their deceased relative might lie in church during the night preceding the Funeral Mass. Whilst this might be part of a vigil of prayer for the deceased, it should be noted that not all parish churches are able to permit such a practice.
10. Feast Days
When arranging a funeral bear in mind that there are certain Feast days when it may not be possible for the parish to accommodate the celebration in church. Holy Thursday is one such example. You may need to be aware of this when discussing the date and time with the funeral director.
We hope this guidance will be helpful in your planning for the funeral and that the resulting ceremony in church will be dignified and prayerful.