The customs and rituals associated with the death and burial of a loved one can provide comfort and structure during the difficult times of change and loss. The Roman Catholic Church is steeped with tradition and formula to give the bereaved support and assurance during the early moments in the grieving process. The funeral services provide a way to pay final respects for the departed, to bring to mind the teachings of the church about the afterlife, and to develop an atmosphere of support and strength from among family and friends of the bereaved.

When Death is Near

When a member of the Catholic Church is approaching death, it is customary for the family to call in a local priest to administer the last rites to the dying person. During this time comforting verses of Scripture are read and prayers for peace and strength are offered.

Once Death Occurs

After the death, a priest should be contacted so that the necessary rites can be administered and plans for the funeral can begin. Many local parishes will recommend funeral homes that are either entirely Catholic or are familiar with the traditions and rituals of the church. The priest will then begin to plan the Funeral Mass and coordinate various people and services that will be involved.

If the services of a funeral home have already been decided upon, or if a cemetery plot had already been purchased, funeral directors or caretakers at the cemetery should be notified. Often the funeral director will take care of many of the details, paperwork and notifications for the funeral, allowing the bereaved family to concentrate instead upon gathering the family for comfort and strength.

If there was a known desire for the donation of organs, notification should be made immediately to the proper authorities. Often the funeral director can take care of making the correct contacts. There has been disagreement within the Catholic Church on the practice of organ donations, but many parishes are seeing donation as a final charitable act that an individual can make.

Preparing for the Catholic Funeral

A Catholic funeral service is a blend of church tradition and ritual, times of remembrance of the deceased, and comfort for those grieving the loss. Family and friends are reminded of the hope that there is for a better life in heaven for those who believe. The Catholic tradition holds a full mass, or worship service, for the funeral of a practiced Catholic believer.

What is Included in the Funeral Service

The Catholic Church recognizes three specific funeral rites: the Vigil Service, the Funeral Mass, and the Rite of Committal. All three are traditionally led by the priest, with the Vigil Service allowing more participation by family and friends.

The Funeral Mass contains more ritual, is almost entirely conducted by the priest, and is held in the church building. The body will normally be present during this service. The Funeral Mass is a complete worship service and contains the Reception of the Body, the liturgies of the Word and the Eucharist, and the Final Commendation and Farewell.

Music plays an important role in most Catholic funerals, with instrumental, choral and soloist portions of the program. More traditional settings will exclude secular music, though some parishes are allowing a select group of popular songs to be included. The music should be uplifting and comforting for mourners.

Eulogies for the deceased have not been a part of the traditional Funeral Mass. Rather, these tributes were given during the Vigil Service the night before. Some parishes now allow family members to give brief remembrances and eulogies following communion and before the last rites are offered.

When the Funeral Service Should Be Held

Traditionally the funeral service is held within the week following the death. The circumstances of the death and the convenience of schedule so that the majority of friends and family may be present for the services often dictate the selection of the date. The services are usually held either in the church or the funeral home. Sometimes the circumstances of the death

or the position that the individual held in the community require a more private or more public setting.

Funeral Masses may not be held during the latter part of Holy Easter Week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Easter Sunday). They are also prohibited on the Sundays during Advent (the four Sundays before December 25th), Lent (the 40 day period before Easter), and the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost (50 days after Easter).

A Funeral Mass may be held on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, but ashes would not be distributed in the church on that day.

Offering Respects Through the Wake

Those attending the Vigil Service or Wake will want to do things to show respect for the deceased. Words and actions which support religious traditions and customs will offer support and comfort for the grieving family.

Final Resting State

Family members may have strong opinions about the way a loved one should be laid to rest. Preferences about the type of casket and the clothing that the loved one will be buried in are left to the family. The Catholic Church attempts to honor these preferences while maintaining liturgical structure and respect for the body.


Burial is still the predominant means of providing a final resting state for the body. The Rite of Committal Service is held either at the grave site or in a chapel at the cemetery. The priest conducts the service by reading Scripture, offering comforting words to the bereaved, and committing the body back to the earth. The service is concluded with a word of prayer.


The Roman Catholic Church prohibited cremation until 1963. They did so partially as a rejection of the practice of other religions and partially as an application of their understanding of doctrine. The belief that the body was a temple of the Holy Spirit, or presence of God, and that it would one day be resurrected influenced the Church’s policy and practice regarding cremation.

Today cremation is an accepted choice for the final resting state of the body. There are still certain restrictions that are included if cremation was chosen. The remains of the deceased are to be treated with the utmost respect. It would not be acceptable to scatter the remains of the body anywhere. The remains should be placed in an appropriate container and then either buried in a cemetery or placed in a crypt, vault or mausoleum. The ashes should not be displayed in the home or put away in a safe or bank vault.