Information on the Catholic funeral service and burial rites
Last updated: 29 November 2017
Catholic beliefs about death
Catholics believe that after death they will depart from their physical life and enter the afterlife. It is taught that a person’s soul may go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory, depending on the actions of the individual in their physical life.
Traditionally, a priest is called when a person is about to die so that they can administer Holy Communion and other religious rites to the individual before death.
Can Catholics be cremated?
The Catholic Church has formally recognised cremation since 1963, although burial continues to be the more traditional choice of committal. For the families of Catholics who choose cremation, the Vatican issued updated guidelines over how a Catholic’s cremation ashes should be conserved after their funeral, in 2016.
It says that following a cremation funeral for a Catholic, their ashes should be kept or buried in a consecrated place, such as a burial plot in a Catholic cemetery, church area or columbarium. The Vatican does not permit funeral ashes to be kept in an urn at home, or scattered or made into memorial keepsakes.
Many Catholics continue in the tradition of burial, according to the faith’s beliefs around resurrection – one of the key doctrines that has influenced the Vatican’s decree that Catholics’ cremation ashes should not be scattered, but kept whole.
Embalming is acceptable before a Catholic funeral and many funeral homes provide chapels of rest suitable for a prayer vigil according to the faith, prior to the funeral.
Many funeral directors can help arrange for the person who has died to be taken to their church or home, to lie at rest before their funeral, according to the family’s beliefs and wishes. A Catholic priest will preside over the burial rites as the person is committed to their grave.
Catholic funeral traditions
Organ donation with informed consent is now widely accepted in the Catholic faith, with many Catholics seeing the donation of organs as a final charitable act at the end of one’s life.
Between the death and the funeral service, Catholics may hold a Prayer Vigil, which is similar to a viewing or wake. These occasions are attended by friends and family members, and often take place at a funeral home, church or home of the family.
At the vigil, mourners are encouraged to pray in remembrance. This gathering is usually led by a priest or a deacon, though a layperson (a non-ordained member of the church) educated in the prayers and traditions may preside over the vigil. On the family’s request, eulogies, and tributes can also be delivered at the vigil.
Catholic funeral Mass
What happens at a Catholic funeral service depends on the type of service: funeral Mass or funeral liturgy.
A Catholic funeral Mass is celebrated by a priest and includes the Eucharistic Prayer and the giving of Holy Communion. During Holy Communion, Catholic mourners proceed to the front of the church and receive the Host, a communion wafer, and sip from a chalice of wine. Celebrating Holy Communion is an integral part of Catholics’ faith, as they believe the bread and wine is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
The other type of service, the Catholic funeral liturgy, does not include Holy Communion. This can be because Mass is restricted on certain days or if a priest is not available. If a deacon is available there may still be a sermon given, but Holy Communion can only be performed by an ordained priest.
Music is played during both types of service, but is mostly restricted to worship-appropriate songs, with non-religious or popular music prohibited. Family members and close friends can request specific hymns, psalms and readings for a Catholic funeral service.
After a Catholic funeral service
After the main service, the Rite of Committal will take place at a graveside, mausoleum or columbarium, presided over by a priest or deacon. The priest or deacon will typically bless the site before leading the mourners in prayer, culminating with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Although Catholics do not have a prescribed mourning period, some may decide to have a memorial service up to six months after death, as well as on the anniversaries of the death.
What to wear to a Catholic funeral
Mourners at Catholic funerals generally wear smart clothing in dark colours. A black suit and tie for men is traditional, and smart black dress or suit for women.
Mourners should also dress modestly, with not too much skin showing, although specific garments or head coverings are generally not required.
What to wear to a Catholic funeral
Christian funerals generally require guests to wear smart clothes in a dark colour. An increasing number of churches are open to colourful dress codes and other alternative options, but if in doubt, wear the following to a Catholic funeral:
- Men: black or dark-coloured suit and tie, smart shoes (not trainers).
- Women: black or dark-coloured dress or suit, smart shoes (not trainers), jacket if required.
- Avoid clothes that are too revealing.
- Generally, clothes must be smart, not casual. Avoid jeans, sports clothes, hoodies and slogan t-shirts.
Catholic funeral etiquette
During prayers it is usually acceptable bow your head or stay seated; although some people kneel. During certain parts of the service the congregation may stand, for example during hymns. If you are physically able, follow their lead.
While the Catholic funeral Mass takes place, non-Catholic mourners are often welcome to join the procession, but will receive a blessing instead of Holy Communion. If you do not want to take part in Holy Communion, simply stay quietly seated until it is over.
For more information on religious funerals, visit our religious funerals page.