This is something written some time ago to try and bring perspective to the meaning and importance of funeral services and the Rite of Christian Burial.
I thought I would write about a topic that sits at the very core of death and burial in the church. As many of you may know there is something that is referred to as the Rite of Christian Burial. Now I used the term something but the Rite is not a “thing”. The Rite of Christian Burial contains three parts, The Vigil (or “wake”), the Liturgy or Mass, and the Committal. Each of these a separate function of the whole, and when followed as designed, present a very exhaustive and complete ritual which afford families the opportunity to mourn, to remember, to celebrate and to eventually heal, when a loved one passes away. I see families today looking for “closure”, spending thousands of dollars on services that do nothing to comfort the pain they are feeling, and giving new names to traditions that have been around a long time. Unfortunately, what I also see is the Rite of Christian Burial being broken, changed, shortened or left out altogether, with families often times being left wanting when it’s all over. Now, there is nothing wrong with adding personal touches or elements to make a funeral service a memorable or special event for the family, or even making it representative of the personal passions of the deceased, but if you take a few moments to understand what the Rite of Christian Burial has to offer, I believe you will see that you will find comfort in its design.
The Vigil (Wake)
The vigil is the first rite celebrated after death. It may take place in the home of the deceased, at a funeral home or even in the church. During a time of loss, this is the first opportunity for us to gather and find comfort in the word of God. The vigil provides an opportunity for family, friends and mourners to gather round and pray for the soul of the deceased, comfort each other and remember the deceased. The vigil can be a time to cry, a time to laugh, a time to remember and a time to pray. This is probably the most appropriate opportunity to make time for those that would like to eulogize the deceased. The support that we can receive from these gatherings is immense, and support is what is needed at this time. Historically, the Vigil was held in the home of the deceased, this not only allowed for the prayers and support as previously mentioned but people would bring food, watch after the children, clean, cook and do whatever was necessary to help the family of the deceased. For those of you that have lost a loved one, you can understand how busy those few days surrounding the funeral can be.
A note on Eulogies. Often time’s family and friends want to eulogize the deceased, and these words can certainly be a source of comfort and often lighten an otherwise somber gathering. The word “eulogy” actually means high praise, and as such, there are appropriate times for a eulogy and the Liturgy or Mass is generally not one of those times. A eulogy would best be presented at the Vigil, after the prayers are said. Alternatively, eulogies could even be presented at a gathering of friends and family after the Committal.
The Mass or the Funeral Liturgy
The Funeral Liturgy is the second time we gather as a community, embracing once again the comfort of our family and friends, and now the message of hope and the resurrection. The Funeral Liturgy ordinarily takes place with the Funeral Mass, and is customarily celebrated in the Parish Church. Families may often participate more fully in this celebration by assisting in the selection of hymns and readings as well as acting as servers, lectors and pall bearers, and even placing the pall on the casket of the deceased. In those cases in which the funeral mass cannot be celebrated, the funeral liturgy may be celebrated outside of Mass as a prayer service. Either way, the funeral liturgy is an integral part of the Rite of Christian Burial and provides another opportunity for faith, comfort and healing. There are those times a family may want to avoid having a funeral mass, possibly because of doubts concerning the “worthiness” of the deceased or maybe because they are concerned that they themselves have been away from the church too long. These are not reasons to choose not to have a mass, the funeral mass is celebrated to pray for God’s mercy on the departed and to give comfort and healing to the living that are dealing with the pain of losing a loved one.
The Rite of Committal
The Rite of Committal is the final rite of Christian Burial, a final act of caring for the body, the ritual procession to the deceased’s final resting place. It is at this time, as a community once again, that we commit our departed loved ones to the hands of God. It is also a time in which we can pray for the strength and peace to continue on during this most difficult time. This is the third time we have been given the opportunity to be comforted by the presence of our family and friends.
It should be noted that burial should take place in a Catholic Cemetery whenever possible. “The Catholic Church strongly encourages those who were part of the Catholic community to be buried in a Catholic Cemetery. Not only is the Catholic Cemetery a sacred place, a place of prayer and a place reflecting our beliefs, but it also expresses the link of community between all the faithful, living and dead. It is recognition of the shared belief of the dead and the living who commit the bodies of their deceased to such a holy place. It is a sure link between heaven and earth, between time and eternity” Most Reverend John O. Barres, Bishop of Allentown, in a letter published in the AD Times.
During the difficult time of a loved one’s passing, human nature is to grieve and grasp for any source of comfort we can find. The rite of Christian Burial not only affords us an opportunity to pray for the soul of the departed but it provides multiple opportunities to find the comfort and solace we so desire, in the presence of our friends and family.
Often times I hear comments to the effect “but the mass is too long” or “so many of my relatives are not catholic”. If you were to celebrate the Rite of Christian Burial, in one day, in its entirety, with the Funeral Liturgy celebrated with the mass, it would last about three hours. Even less when the Liturgy is celebrated outside of mass. This includes the viewing and Vigil, the Mass and the Committal at the Cemetery.
It is my hope, that those of you reading this may come to understand the encompassing nature of the Rite of Christian Burial and the opportunity for faith, comfort and healing it truly affords us, for no other reason than your personal peace at the time of a loss.
And is three hours really too much?
“Very high praise for Larry and all the ladies in the office! They were very nice when you walked in the office and sincere with their condolences.”
“We had just had a huge snowstorm and I thought the cemetery was well cleaned for the funeral… This was no easy task.”
“I have recommended Gethsemane to my neighbor. It appears to be well-managed, the manager Tim, capable, considerate and effective.”
“The men that were present the day of my father’s funeral were caring and very courteous. I feel it takes a special person to do this.”
“The family and I appreciate how smoothly everything went, and the condition of the facilities. Courteous and professional personnel.”
“Every aspect was professional and everyone was very helpful. I cannot thank everyone enough for being so pleasant and accommodating.”