Roman Catholic Funeral Service Rituals

Overview of Beliefs and Practices

Catholic Funeral Customs “Roman Catholic” refers to the Christian church that recognizes the Pope and Vatican as the authority and representation of God’s teachings. Today, there are about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world.

Catholics teach that Jesus died to redeem man from sin. They believe in immortality and that in death a person may be judged to go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. In Purgatory, God’s purifying mercy eventually obtains for the deceased a place in Heaven. Unlike some Protestant beliefs, Roman Catholics are not assured before death that they will go to heaven, and so mourners pray for their deceased loved one’s entrance into heaven. They believe in the eventual resurrection of the body and the reuniting of the body with the soul at Christ’s second coming.

The first official who should be called upon the death of a Roman Catholic is the person’s priest. If the death was expected, the priest may have already attended the person and performed the last rites, or final prayers and ministrations preceding death. The next call should be to the funeral home.

Elements of a Catholic Funeral

The most common elements of a Roman Catholic funeral are:

  1. A vigil service with either the body or cremated remains present. If the body is present, the casket may be either open or closed.
  2. A funeral Mass or service with either the body or cremated remains present. If the body is not present, the service is referred to as a Memorial Mass.
  3. A graveside service with burial of the body or cremated remains or the placing of the remains in a columbarium or mausoleum.

The Vigil (or Wake): A vigil is a prayer ceremony where friends and family gather together to pay their respects to the deceased and his or her family. It may take place at a funeral home, a church, the family home, or some other location. Typical elements include prayers lead by a priest or appropriate layperson. Eulogies, memorials, singing of hymns or secular music, readings and poems may be incorporated as well.

Funeral Mass: The funeral Mass (Memorial Mass if no body is present) is held at the church. At the entrance to the church, the remains are sprinkled with holy water and covered with a pall, a reminder of baptism. When the procession reaches the front of the church an open bible and a crucifix, symbols of Christian faith, may be placed on the casket. An urn of cremated remains may be carried in procession or placed on a table at the front of the church before the service begins. A flag may be placed on a casket after communion (Source: St. Dominick’s Catholic Church, San Francisco). The Funeral Mass does not typically include eulogies though loved ones often participate in readings.

While a typical Mass is generally formal and follows traditional elements, some Catholic churches allow a slightly less formal service, including personal reflections and remembrances of the deceased, special music performances, and other aspects that are non-traditional.

Holding a funeral Mass is preferred but is not a requirement. In cases where the family of the deceased decide that a Mass cannot be held, the funeral service will include the funeral prayers (funeral liturgy) that would normally be held during Mass. (Source: St. John the Evangelist Parish, North Chelmsford, MA)

Burial: After the service, the remains are usually transported to a cemetery, where there is a formal committal or burial ceremony, presided over by the priest. In the case of cremation, this may take place at a columbarium or mausoleum.

Roman Catholics and Cremation

Historically, the Catholic Church forbade cremation. However, in the early 1960s the Church relaxed the rules and today many Catholics choose cremation. Recently the Church clarified its position on cremation for Catholics and in October 2016, the Pope issued updated guidelines. Today, cremation is allowed but the ashes must be kept in a “sacred place” such as a church cemetery. Ashes should not be scattered or kept in an urn at home.

Catholic Funeral Etiquette for Non-Catholics

When attending a Catholic funeral, non-Catholics should use the same etiquette they would for any funeral. Be respectful and aware that during Mass the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist (communion) will take place. As a non-Catholic, you will not participate in communion. During the service, you can follow along, participate in the singing of hymns, and stand or kneel when others do.

Funeral practices vary between congregations. Ceremonies may also reflect customs and traditions specific to a geographic location or community. To verify the practices of a particular congregation, consult with a clergy member.

Roman Catholic Reference Guide
Length of Service 30 minutes without Mass, 60 minutes with Mass
Flowers? Yes (See our Sympathy Flowers)
Food? Yes
Dress Code? (Men/Women) Dark & Conservative / Men: Jacket & Tie
Recording Devices? Only with permission
Source of Readings? New American Standard Bible
Open Casket? During the vigil, not the Mass
Return to Work? (Days) 7
No. of Days to Mourn? 7
Embalming? Yes, if viewing is planned.
Cremation? Yes. Scattering of ashes is not permitted. Remains should be buried or placed in a columbarium niche.
Body/Organ Donation? Yes. Considered a noble act for the common good.

Contributor: Jenny Mertes

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