Understanding the funeral liturgy

Planning ahead and prayer can ease the stress on bereaved families
The death of a loved one is one of the most difficult things anyone can face.
For Catholics, the pain of bereavement may also be compounded by stress if they are unsure how to give the deceased a proper funeral according to church teachings and tradition.
Pastors say that with planning and prayer, however, families and friends can find comfort in putting together a funeral liturgy that pays tribute to their loved one and honors the belief that the deceased has entered eternal rest with Christ.
“The idea is that this person was a child of God; to God they are holy and special, and they have now returned to God,” said Father Ronald R. Cellini, pastor of St. Gregory the Great Church in Bluffton.
The funeral Mass
The church offers two forms of liturgy. The Rite of Christian Burial is offered when the body is present, and a memorial Mass takes place without a body present.
While the Rite of Christian Burial is usually preferred, both forms are equally sacred and demand prayerful consideration in their planning.
“The most important thing to remember is that from the very beginning Christians have always prayed for their deceased loved ones,” said Msgr. Steven L. Brovey, vicar for Divine Worship and Sacraments for the Diocese of Charleston. “That is because we believe as Catholics that we can assist our beloved dead and all the holy souls in purgatory through our prayers, sacrifices and most especially through the offering of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”
Msgr. Brovey, who is also pastor of Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, said loved ones must remember that the funeral liturgy is more than a worship service focused entirely on their personal needs or those of the deceased.
“The funeral Mass is not merely a secular celebration of the life of the person who has died, but something much more powerful,” he said. “It is the church commending the soul of the deceased to loving embrace in our merciful God, interceding for the forgiveness of their sins and a renewal of our faith and hope in the promises our Lord made to all who have been baptized into his death and resurrection.”
The planning process
The most important thing a family can do is contact the church office and the pastor as soon as possible after the death of a loved one. It can be even more helpful if people devise a plan before it is actually needed.
“If possible, try to do some advanced planning, either for yourself or with your loved ones,” said Msgr. James A. Carter, pastor at Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant. “We’re all going to die, and a funeral is certainly something we want to be handled properly.”
Msgr. Carter, music minister Bill Becknell and other staff members at Christ Our King held a special workshop in the spring to help people learn what is allowed at funerals, plus the procedure for planning. Participants received a copy of the parish’s official guidelines for funerals. Many parishes have similar guides available at their office or on church Web sites.
Whether they have an advance plan or not, families must still meet with the pastor, the music minister and other church personnel who can help with the funeral liturgy. The meetings are a time to choose readings, and go over music selections and other elements of the liturgy.
The priest will ask the family if they want a wake service and if so, what type: a Scripture service or a rosary. Both are led by a priest or deacon and are either held at the funeral home or in the church.
At Christ Our King, as in many churches around the diocese, a committee works with bereaved families to help them during the planning process, and also on the day of the funeral. Some committees provide food for the family or a special meal on the day of the service. At Christ Our King, they call it the “Lazarus meal.”
In some cases, bereavement committees also follow up with families after the funeral to see if any other support is needed.
Each parish usually has its own requirements and rules regarding flowers, military honors and other aspects of the ceremony.
Burial versus cremation
One of the main misconceptions these days is that Catholics may not be cremated. While this was the case for much of the church’s history, the ban on cremation was lifted in 1963 by what was then the Holy Office in Rome, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Cremation was allowed as long as the reasons for choosing it did not go against Christian beliefs. At that time, no allowances were made for prayer or a ritual of any kind, and Catholics were still to reserve cremation until after the funeral Mass. After Vatican II, funeral rites were revised to allow for a Rite of Committal with the ashes at a grave site.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law stresses the preference of the church for burial, but does not forbid cremation unless someone chooses it because they do not believe in the resurrection of the body.
Cremated remains were not permitted in most Catholic churches during the funeral Mass until 1997. It is still preferable for families to wait until after the Mass itself for cremation, Msgr. Brovey said.
“The church encourages that the traditional custom of burying the body be maintained, but does allow for cremation,” Msgr. Brovey said. “If the body is to be cremated, it should take place following the funeral Mass, except for some serious reason that is best discussed with the local pastor.”
After the funeral, cremated remains should never be scattered, placed on the mantel or stored in any other undignified way. Msgr. Brovey said he has known of families who wanted to divide a loved one’s ashes among themselves, which is not only highly undignified but also not permitted by the Catholic Church.
Cremated remains should always be buried or interred in a columbarium.
“Our Lord was buried in the tomb following his crucifixion and the church encourages us to retain this custom,” he said. “We are buried in the expectation of the resurrection of our bodies at our Lord’s second coming.”
Msgr. Carter said priests in coastal areas frequently receive questions about burial at sea. For Catholics, this is permitted only if the cremated remains are placed in a sealed urn or other container, and then committed to the sea.
The main guideline for music at a Catholic funeral is that it cannot be secular.
According to the church’s Order of Christian Funerals, “The texts of the songs chosen … should express the paschal mystery of the Lord’s suffering, death and triumph over death, and should be related to the readings from Scripture.”
“Secular music is not permitted because the funeral is not a secular celebration,” Msgr. Brovey said. Families should meet with a church’s music minister to select correct music. For those uncertain about what to include, he strongly encourages that traditional ancient chants for funeral Masses be considered.
“They are not only beautiful, but very consoling and so Catholic,” he said. Two of the best known are Requiem aeternam, “Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them,” which is played while the body in the casket is processed from the door of the church to the altar; and In Paradisum, “May the angels lead you into paradise.”
Father Cellini has denied requests for all kinds of music, including one man who desperately wanted “My Way” to be played at his funeral Mass.
He suggested that secular music which holds a special meaning for the deceased or their family could be played at a wake service prior to the funeral, the visitation or at family gatherings before or after the service.
“Put on the favorite music at home,” he said.
The eulogy, when family and friends tell stories about the deceased, is one of the most common customs at American burials, but is one that is not usually allowed at Catholic funerals.
The Order of Christian Burial specifically states that “at a funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily but never a eulogy of any kind.” Families need to consult with their pastor to see what is allowed, because exceptions are occasionally made.
At Christ Our King, for example, eulogies are not permitted and only the celebrant speaks during the Mass. Eulogies there are offered during the visitation or the luncheon after the Mass.
In general, the celebrant will offer a brief homily that includes a few words about the deceased. It is important that the family meet with the pastor or the celebrant in advance to offer some relevant information about the deceased, especially if the celebrant did not know them.
Pray, reflect and heal
If families are willing to follow the church’s guidelines and approach this difficult but sacred task with prayer and reflection, planning a funeral liturgy can open them up to a greater relationship with Christ.
“Over the years, I’ve found that a well-planned funeral can help reconcile people to the church,” Father Cellini said. “It both gives them peace and can be a great cause of evangelization.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has extensive guidelines and suggestions regarding Catholic funerals on its Web site at www.usccb.org.
Additional source: www.americancatholic.org.