Catholic Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs
Catholic funerals have important religious steps and are a final act of liturgy towards the deceased. They are about acknowledging the passing of a loved one with an emphasis on their eternal life and the community’s hope that their soul will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven. Catholic funerals are traditionally held in a Catholic church and are led by a priest.
Order of services
Catholic funerals have several steps associated with them that should be done in order.
The vigil service is held before the funeral liturgy and is usually held at the funeral home, home, or church. The gathering is most often led by a priest who leads those gathered in community prayer and remembrance of the deceased. This is also the time when mourners can share remembrances and a eulogy can be read, if desired. Eulogies are not permitted during the funeral liturgy, an important piece to keep in mind if you desire to have a eulogy read.
Funeral liturgy refers to the public worshipping that takes place when someone has passed away.
At the funeral liturgy, a Requiem Mass is usually held. Mass is not required, but it’s recommended and preferred by the Catholic Church and is often requested or expected by the deceased if they were a practicing Catholic.
Receiving & baptizing the casket
If the church had the casket in place before the service, the casket is sprinkled with holy water and covered with the pall. At this point, a greeting to the family is given and an opening prayer is said.
If the church did not receive the casket before the service, there will be a small procession from the church entrance to the altar. The priest will go to the entrance of the church and sprinkle the casket with holy water. They will then lead the family and the body into the church while a hymn is sung. At the end of the procession, the casket is placed at the altar and a pall is placed over the casket.
Once the casket is placed and the opening prayer is finished, readings will begin. Readings at a Catholic funeral usually include at least one passage from the Old Testament and one Psalm. Additional readings are often read (such as New Testament readings and gospel readings) and the family should feel encouraged to select readings they’d like read at the service. Family or friends who want to read at the service should be members of the church.
If you’re searching for readings that are appropriate for a Catholic funeral, The Order of Christian Funerals is a great place to find passages that are appropriate. If you need additional guidance, your clergy will often have suggestions and recommendations for you.
At this point, a homily is usually given by the pastor, but no eulogy is given. A homily is a speech or religious discourse given by the priest. Eulogies, while part of traditional American funerals, are not permitted in Catholic funerals. If the family has a eulogy they’d like to have someone read, it is saved for either the visitation or services after the funeral (like a luncheon). Families can also decide to deliver a eulogy at a completely different date in a totally different setting.
Presentation of gifts
Family members will normally offer wine and bread to the priest at the altar before communion takes place.
While Communion will not always take place at a Catholic funeral, it is not infrequent. Communion will be offered and the community will form a procession to receive communion. Non-church members will not (and should not) participate in communion and will instead be blessed by priests. There is usually a hymn playing during the time of communion.
The final commendation is the end of the funeral liturgy and involves the priest sprinkling the casket with holy water a final time and incensed. The family and community gathered give their farewell to the deceased and the procession is formed to take the body to the final place of committal.
Rite of committal
The final step in the Catholic funeral process, the rite of committal is performed at the place of burial or interment. A priest will bless the burial site or place of interment and will lead the community in prayer, ending with the Catholic version of the Lord’s prayer. The rite of committal is a religious expression by the deceased’s loved ones that celebrate and hope that the deceased awaits resurrection in heaven.
Common questions regarding Catholic funeral traditions
How long after death is a Catholic funeral?
Catholic funerals usually take place within three days of the death, but can take place from two days up to one week after someone has died.
Are Catholic funerals open casket?
The decision for an open or closed casket is entirely up to the family of the deceased. Catholic traditions do not require either a closed or open casket, it is a personal decision.
Can Catholics be cremated?
Cremation is allowed in Catholicism, but ashes are explicitly stated as to not be scattered. If you choose cremation, your remains must be buried or interred in holy places and cannot be split among family members. Cremains cannot be stored at home, in personal jewelry, or scattered in places; a Catholic funeral would not be granted in these cases. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of cremation as a Catholic, consider consulting with your religious leader about the implications of cremation and where they feel the lines are drawn in terms of acceptability.
How long does a Catholic funeral last?
A traditional Catholic funeral should last around 30 minutes and will include Mass, which lasts around an additional 30 minutes. Overall, the traditional Catholic funeral should last around 1 hour. A Catholic funeral service without Mass should last around 30 minutes total.
What kind of songs are played at a Catholic funeral?
Each church usually offers its own hymns and songs that they play at a Catholic funeral, so it’s a good idea to sit down with your church leadership and select the songs you’d like played at the service. If you have a hymn or song you’d like played that’s not within the church’s normal offerings, be sure that it’s appropriate or offered by other churches. For your reference, a different hymn or song is usually played for each category of the funeral liturgy: An entrance hymn, a responsorial psalm, an offertory hymn, a communion hymn, a song of farewell, and a recessional hymn. Here is an example of SS. Peter & Paul Catholic Church’s list of songs and hymns appropriate for their Catholic funerals, your church is likely to have a similar set available to you.
Are there flowers at a Catholic funeral?
It is generally recommended to send flowers either to the family home or the funeral home, not to the church. The Catholic church only allows a certain amount of flowers during a Catholic funeral and if the family already has that planned out, you want to avoid complicating this for them. It’s also worth noting that the Church does not allow flowers in the church during specific times of the year, such as Lent.
What is the dress code for a Catholic funeral?
Traditionally, you should wear a black outfit to a Catholic funeral. Men should generally wear suits and women should wear a black dress, skirt, or pantsuit.
Many American traditions are not allowed at a Catholic funeral (such as sending lots of flowers or reading a eulogy), and it’s important to be aware of this and honor it. If you’re in charge of planning a Catholic funeral and have friends and family attending who are not Catholic, it’s a good idea to notify them of what to expect and to let them know of certain aspects they will be asked not to participate in (such as Communion). You can notify friends, family, and your community about upcoming events and share pertinent details by setting up a memorial website. Memorial websites allow you to share important event information, collect stories and memories, collect donations, and invite others to join in remembering a loved one.