I’m not Catholic, but I’m going to a Catholic funeral. Now what?
Father Tom Dillon of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Tallahassee says not to worry, the program will be your guide to the service.
There are generally two types of Catholic funerals, Father Tom said, those that include a Mass and those that do not. Whether the service has a Mass or not depends on the preference of the deceased and their family.
- The service is typically held in a church.
- The casket is usually closed for the service, but may be open at the wake.
- A funeral service without the Mass would last about 30 to 45 minutes; with the Mass extends it to about an hour.
- Attire should be neat but somber. “It’s a solemn event for us,” Father Tom said.
- Flowers can be sent, or donations and gifts may be given, depending on the family’s preference.
Care of the Deceased
Father Tom said embalming is acceptable. Families may also choose cosmetic services from the funeral home so the deceased looks more like the family would remember them. It may also be a comfort to the family, the church says, and both processes may be necessary even if the deceased is to be cremated because Catholic funeral rites typically take a few days.
Ceremonies and Rituals
Catholic funeral rites are divided into several stations or parts: The vigil or wake, the funeral liturgy and the rite of committal (burial).
The vigil usually takes place at the funeral home. It is a time, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says, to remember the deceased and commend them to God. There can be a service with readings from Scripture or one of the prayers of the Office for the Dead, according to the preferences of the deceased or their family. The priest may encourage the eulogy to be done during the vigil, Father Tom said, but it can also be done during the funeral service.
During that service, Father Tom urges decorum. If you’re not Catholic or are unfamiliar with the service, follow along in the funeral program. Most priests are also used to a mixed congregation, especially at a funeral, he said, so they will take care to guide people along. There’s no call and response between the priest and congregation, he said, but there are prayers. The only forbidden thing, he says, is introducing other religious rites to the ceremony. If you’re of another religion and want to publicly pray for the deceased or the family, please do so elsewhere.
Also, non-Catholics cannot receive the elements of communion — the bread and the wine. Father Tom said not to worry, however, the priest will make clear who can and cannot participate in communion. Most of the time, non-Catholics can still join the line and, by advancing with their arms crossed (indicating you choose not to receive communion), can receive a blessing instead of the host.
Father Tom said the family may elect to have a private burial. That information will be available in the death notice or in the funeral program, he said. At the burial service, the priest will bless the grave with holy water before special prayers are said. The family may throw flowers into the grave and, overall, the mood is subdued.
“It’s meant to be a somber event,” he said.
Even if the burial is private, the family may elect to have a public reception after the service and either before or after the burial. You may not see them before the funeral service, Father Tom said, as the family is usually secluded for privacy. But afterwards, they will greet guests and accept heartfelt words of sympathy. Flowers may also be sent, he said, or gifts or donations to the deceased’s favorite charity or organization, and that information may be found in the obituary or funeral program. There is also usually a basket to collect cards expressing sympathy to the family.
Methods of Disposition
Burial is preferred, Father Tom says, because the church believes in bodily resurrection when Jesus returns. But cremation is acceptable. If possible, the Catholic church prefers Catholics to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, but the priest’s blessing is sufficient to consecrate the gravesite no matter where it is.
While customs differ from religion to religion, there are universal norms of funeral care that are practiced across all religions, including care of the deceased, a ceremony or ritual and a method of disposition. In a multipart series, Bevis Funeral Home talks to the local faith community about the funeral customs of various religions, including Buddhism; Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; and Unitarian Universalism.
For more information about the funeral traditions of various religious faiths, call Bevis Funeral Home at (850) 385-2193.