A Guide to Catholic funeral etiquette, rites and traditions
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
What are 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 perform other Catholic funeral rites to the individual before death.
What are Catholic funeral rites?
There are three parts to every Catholic funeral.
Catholic funeral prayers (Prayer Vigil or Wake)
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 liturgy
The next part of the Catholic funeral rite is the funeral liturgy which is central to every Catholic funeral. What happens at a Catholic funeral depends on the type of service: funeral mass or funeral liturgy.
Usually, 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.
If mass cannot be celebrated, the Catholic funeral liturgy which does not include the giving of Holy Communion, takes place. 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.
Friends and family gather at the church to recite Catholic funeral prayers and offer praise and thanks for Christ’s victory over death.
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
Catholic Rite of Committal
After the funeral mass or liturgy, the Catholic 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 anniversary of the death.
How long does a catholic funeral last?
The length of a catholic funeral will usually depend on whether or not there is a funeral mass.
A Catholic funeral service without mass may take around 40 minutes. A funeral with mass could take a minimum of an hour. The rites which may take place at the cemetery or crematorium will usually last around 20 minutes.
What are Catholic funeral traditions ?
Traditionally, burial is required by the Catholic Church and embalming is acceptable. A Catholic priest will preside over the burial rites to lay the person to rest.
Until 1963, the Catholic Church did not recognize cremation as an acceptable practice. Since then, followers of the Catholic Church can be cremated.
In 2016 the Catholic Church issued additional guidance that a Catholic’s cremation ashes should not be scattered or kept in an urn at home. Instead, the ashes should be interred in a burial plot or kept in a columbarium approved by the Church.
Organ donation can be a controversial topic within Catholicism, but is now widely accepted, with many Catholics seeing the donation of organs as a final charitable act at the end of one’s life.
What to wear to a Catholic funeral
Mourners at Catholic funerals generally wear smart clothing in dark colors. A black or dark-coloured 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 things like specific garments or head coverings are not required.
An increasing number of churches are open to colourful dress codes and other alternative options, but if in doubt, avoid casual clothing such as jeans, sports, clothes, hoodies, trainers and slogan t-shirts.
Catholic funeral etiquette
During prayers it is usually acceptable to 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.
Find out more information about other religious funerals.