Historic Funeral Traditions: Catholic

Few rituals have such historic meaning as those conducted by the Roman Catholic Church. The following list contains some historic Roman Catholic burial traditions. If these traditions have changed, that information is included as well; however, little has changed, especially concerning the reasons behind the rituals. The following information may help you to understand how the Roman Catholics view death and dying:

  • Roman Catholic funeral rites in the past included burning a light during the wake, or visitation of the body, and a small cross or a rosary with a cross placed in the deceased’s hands or the hands were arranged to form a cross over the chest.
  • The body, also, was sprinkled with holy water and the casket, during the funeral mass, was placed so the feet faced the altar. A priest’s casket, however, would be placed opposite, with the head towards the altar.
  • In the English Church, the funeral pall was regularly employed. A black cloth (the pall) was spread over the coffin while the obsequies, or funeral rites were performed for the deceased. It generally has a white cross worked through its entire length and width. The Roman Ritual does not prescribe its use in the burial of a priest or layman, but does so for the absolution given after a requiem when the body is not present. The “Ceremoniale Episcoporum” orders a black covering on the bed of state for a deceased bishop. It was once customary specially to invite people to carry the pall, or, at least, to touch its borders during the procession. These pall-bearers frequently had the palls made of very costly materials and these were afterwards made into sacred vestments. Formerly dalmatics, or even coverings taken from the altar, were used as a pall for a deceased pope, but, on account of abuses that crept in, this practice was suppressed. In the Council of Auxerre (578, can. xii) and in the statutes of St. Boniface, the pall hiding the body was forbidden.
  • The Catholic Church holds up as normative the rites contained in its ritual book The Order of Christian Funerals [PDF]. Normally, funeral rites include: a Vigil Service celebrated in the funeral home or the church, the Funeral Liturgy itself (in the church), and the Rite of Committal of the body at the cemetery. Despite being valuable expressions of faith, the Rosary and other traditions are not to replace the Vigil for the Deceased [PDF]. These devotions are acceptable in addition to the Vigil Service.
  • The Catholic Church prefers that the body of the deceased be present for the Vigil Service. In addition, the body of the deceased should be brought to the local parish church for the Funeral Mass. The Rite of Committal of the body normally takes place at the cemetery although the committal can be done at the end of the Funeral Mass. The body of the deceased is to be interred, either in the ground or in a crypt following the Funeral Mass.
  • In many areas, Catholic church members still are buried in Catholic cemeteries. But, Catholics were and still remain open to choose where they would like to be buried. However, non-Catholics cannot be buried in a Catholic cemetery, but if this is the only community cemetery, exceptions may be made. Like many other Christian cemeteries, the graves are laid on an east-west axis, with feet to the east to face the rising sun. A priest, deacon, or lay person may preside at the service for the interment.
  • Though brief, the rite of committal assists the bereaved at this most difficult time. This rite includes a short Scriptural verse, the prayer of committal, intercessions, Lord’s Prayer and a blessing. The lowering of the body into the grave or placement in the tomb or crematorium may take place following the prayer of committal or at the conclusion of the rite. A song affirming hope in the resurrection may conclude this rite. Those who wish may offer some gesture of leave-taking at this time, and – often – the ritual included visitors, family members and friends throwing a clod of dirt on the coffin to symbolize the body’s return to the earth.
  • Blessing of the burial ground may not be considered necessary if the burial takes place on consecrated ground such as a Catholic cemetery. When necessary, holy water may be sprinkled on the ground before the casket is lowered, then again on the casket in the ground. In some parishes, the leftover holy water may be distributed to family members to use in figure visits to the grave.
  • Although a Catholic person may claim rights to burial in another cemetery, the church suggests that this request be known before death. Otherwise, without knowledge of this wish, the body will be buried in a parish cemetery.
  • Only baptized persons who have a claim to Christian burial and the rites of the Catholic church can obtain a Catholic burial. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Moreover no strict claim can be allowed in the case of those persons who have not lived in communion with the Church according to the maxim which comes down from the time of Pope Leo the Great (448) “quibus viventibus non communicavimus mortuis communicare non possumus” (we cannot hold communion in death with those who in life were not in communion with us). It has further been recognized as a principle that the last rites of the Church constitute a mark of respect which is not to be shown to those who in their lives have proved themselves unworthy of it.”
  • Others who have historically and are today excluded from Catholic burial include pagans, Jews, infidels, heretics (and their adherents), schismatics, apostates and excommunicated persons. In fact, if an excommunicated person is buried in a church or in consecrated land, the place is thereby desecrated, and, wherever possible, the remains must be exhumed and buried elsewhere.
  • Further, Catholic burial is to be refused to suicides (this prohibition is as old as the fourth century; cf. Cassian in P.L., XL, 573) except in case that the act was committed when they were of unsound mind or unless they showed signs of repentance before death occurred.
  • Cremation is not prohibited within the Catholic faith, but it may be frowned upon if it is discovered that the cremation was chosen for anti-Christian motives. Even when cremation is chosen, the Church
    recommends that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites. The presence of the human body better expresses the values that the Church affirms in the funeral rites. When cremation follows the liturgy, the funeral liturgy and other rites are celebrated as usual. When the body is cremated and committed soon after death, the rites of final commendation and committal are used at the appropriate times, even though occurring prior to the funeral liturgy. The vigil and other rites are also adapted, as necessary. The cremated remains of the body, due the same respect as the remains of the body, must be buried in a cemetery, entombed in a columbarium or buried at sea.

For more information about Catholic funeral rites, see the brochure [PDF] produced from a collaborative effort of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and the Archdiocese of Louisville Office of Worship.

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