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A Guide to Memorial Traditions that Have Helped to Shape The World
Catholic funerals can take on unique dimensions that may be unfamiliar to non-Catholics. Nevertheless, the many traditions of Catholicism, aside from being beautiful in their own right and are an important study for anyone interested in the history of civilization itself. Such is the importance of the Catholic Church. So, below is a brief guide to the traditions and customs that encompass Catholic funerals.
Ever since Vatican II, Catholic funerals have followed a pattern throughout the service of shifting from death to life. The congregation during this time, it is hoped, will come past some of their sorrow over their loss to see that their loved one is not really gone, but will live for all eternity with Jesus Christ. There is also emphasis on resurrection from death to life, which Catholics believe will happen for every believer.
Catholic funerals typically involve 3 parts, the vigil, the requiem mass, and the burial and informal after burial gatherings. During the vigil in Catholic funerals, the bereaved will visit the deceased to say their parting farewells. Today, this usually takes place in a funeral home, although it can still take place in a parish church, chapel, or at home as well. Typically beside the casket, there will be a “holy card” with the image of a saint on one side, and the departed’s “heavenly birthday.” Since Catholics believe that it is a sin to presume that a loved one has gone to heaven, the card will often express their earnest hope that he or she has. As part of the vigil for Catholic funerals, they will recite the rosary, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you…,”once for each decade of the departed’s life. Ideally, this will be done by a priest, however if there is not one around, they are free to recite it themselves. Another typical rite found here and at other points in Catholic funerals is the “Eternal Rest” prayer. This goes “Grant unto the departed eternal rest, and let light perpetual shine upon them.” They will also recite this prayer later on All Souls Day as they remember the deceased. Unlike Protestant ones, Catholic funerals reserve eulogies for the vigil and burial rites, although in America, since Protestantism has influenced many Catholics, there are dioceses that will allow eulogies during the requiem mass.
The Requiem mass in Catholic funerals can have a dramatically different theme depending on the age of the departed. If the deceased is a child who has been baptized, but has not yet arrived at the age of reason, Catholic funerals are a joyous affair, as they assume that God will be merciful to him or her and that he or she will go to heaven. If it is an adult who has been baptized, the feelings are more mixed. They are hopeful and confident; although not certain that their loved one has gone to heaven. If a person has not been baptized, Catholic funerals are by canon law denied. Interestingly though, there is allowance for one who was baptized, but later rejected the faith. As the priest arrives for Catholic funerals, he will spray baptismal water on the casket, as he asks God to give to the departed eternal rest. The congregation then chants “Kyrie Eleison,” “Lord have mercy.” Communion is then served, as the “Eternal Rest,” prayer is repeated. Finally, the casket is taken out of the church, as the people say to the departed, “May the angels lift you into heaven.” It is customary to give the priest a stole fee for having officiated the Requiem Mass, which is usually about $50, although it is not required.
As Catholic funerals proceed to the burial, the casket is taken to the cemetery. When everyone has arrived, the priest will call the service to order by reciting the “Eternal Rest” prayer again. It is also traditional for the body to face East in the casket, as the deceased waits expectantly for the resurrection. During this time, loved ones of the departed will share their pain over the loss of their loved one. The thinking here is that people should express how they feel, and that there should be little to no official orchestration.
This is typically followed by the final and most light hearted aspect in Catholic funerals, the after-burial luncheon. As yet another example of the transition from death to life in Catholic funerals, the luncheon is a time when the bereaved can share some light hearted memories of the departed, and maybe even share a few of the ways that their loved one made them laugh.