Catholicism: Periods of Mourning

The expression of grief and mourning on behalf of a lost loved one is extremely personal. The amount of time spent in mourning, the length of progressing through the grieving process, and the depth and severity of the grief will depend upon the relationship shared with the deceased and the individual’s ability to process and cope with the loss. Roman Catholicism is a very formal practice of Christianity, offering structure, assurance and comfort throughout the grieving process.

Types of Services: Wakes, Funeral & Burial

The Catholic Church recognizes three specific funeral rites. The Vigil Service, sometimes called the Wake, is usually conducted in the funeral home or church on the evening before the Funeral Mass. Friends and family gather to pay their last respects for the deceased and to provide comfort and strength to the immediate family. Many individuals who cannot attend the Funeral Mass will be present at this service. Though the service contains prayers, Scripture readings and liturgy, it is a more informal time where remembrances and eulogies are shared.

The Funeral Mass contains more ritual, is conducted by a priest and is held in the church building. Under most circumstances, the body will be present during this service. The Funeral Mass includes the Reception of the Body, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Final Commendation and Farewell.

The final service is the Rite of Committal, a brief tribute performed at the cemetery, often in either a chapel or at the grave site. The priest will read a meaningful passage of Scripture, make concluding remarks of comfort for the bereaved, present a statement of committal of the body back to the earth, and conclude with prayer.

Mourning Traditions, Customs & Rituals

The Catholic Church has a long-standing history of accepted rituals and rules for behavior governing any events of the life experience, including death and mourning. While the rules have not changed, the commitment to such traditions is often less rigorously followed today.

Priests lead the Funeral Mass and the Committal Service. They may also play a role in the Vigil Services. Throughout the services laypeople may participate as readers, musicians, ushers, and pallbearers. The music played at the Funeral Mass should be appropriate, approved church music. Popular or non-religious music, though not used in the Mass, would be meaningful at the Vigil Service.

Every Funeral Mass will have a set liturgy – order, structure and words that are used at every funeral. This structure provides comfort, security and assurance for the bereaved. The priest leads in the words and the symbolic acts. Many times the congregation will respond in unison with affirming words of faith and comfort.

Length of the Mourning Period

Catholic tradition governing the kind and duration of mourning has evolved over the years, often influenced by culture and convenience. The Catholic Church officially distinguishes three types of mourning.

Heavy or deep mourning is the most intense mourning period. All black dress is appropriate, with no jewelry containing colored stones. In some cultures, an all-white suit of clothing is also considered full mourning and would be acceptable.

Half mourning is the next period of mourning. Black with white trim, or white with black trim, is considered the standard for dress.

Light or second mourning is the final stage of mourning. Clothing is characterized by mild colors, including black and white mixtures, greys, mauves and other soft pastel colors. Fabric used during this time may be patterned.

The amount of time spent in each of the mourning periods would be dependent upon the relationship that was shared with the deceased. Culture has begun to change some of the standards regarding the length of time appropriate for mourning. For example, even through the 1950’s the accepted standard for a widow was one year of heavy mourning, followed by six months of half mourning and another six months of light mourning. The total time of mourning was to be six years. Provision was made to lessen the time if the widow found someone she would consider a proper suitor after the first year.

Today the following periods of time have become the general guidelines for the Catholic Church:

A spouse should spend a year and a day in mourning. Moving through the periods of mourning is considered optional, with the heavy period of mourning being 30 days and half and light mourning equally dividing the remaining time. A spouse should not accept nor offer attention to the opposite sex during the year of mourning.

Parents or children of the deceased are encouraged to spend six months in mourning, with the heavy mourning period lasting 30 days. Grandparents and siblings are to spend three months in mourning, with the heavy mourning time lasting 30 days. Other family members should spend thirty days in mourning.

Today the adherence to these traditions often depends upon personal preference and upon the commitment level of the individual to the rituals of the church. It is more common to find widows or widowers wearing mourning clothing only to church or on formal occasions.

Cemeteries

While the Catholic Church does not require a certain number of visits to the cemetery, the grave site is often a place for families and friends to mourn and remember the life of the deceased. Visiting the grave site is a tangible way for people to convey honor and respect. Many individuals find peace and comfort when visiting the cemetery, allowing for a time of reflection, introspection and remembrance.

If a headstone or monument was prepared and erected at a later time, it would be appropriate to use such a time to gather friends and family at the site. Others may use special days like a birthday, holiday, wedding anniversary or the anniversary of the death to visit the grave site. The visit makes an appropriate occasion to adorn the grave with new flowers or wreaths.

Comforting the Bereaved

Family and friends will express condolences and comfort by attending the Vigil Service and the Funeral Mass if possible. It is also appropriate to visit the home of the family to offer comfort and support. Adherence to a strict mourning period is less common today. Thoughtful words through a card or a phone call are always appreciated. Such gestures help the bereaved know that their loved one is remembered and that they are cared for with compassion.