Special: Christian Funerals|
A Pastoral Message on the Order of Christian Funerals
By Bishop Robert Banks
My dear friends in Christ,
The society in which we live is often uncomfortable discussing
death. Yet death is a common experience that eventually comes
into every home and family. Despite death being so common, the
mystery, and even the fear of the unknown surrounds it.
It is only natural that these feelings are experienced also by
people of faith. But our faith calls us to face the end of our
earthly life with hope and confidence in the mercy of our loving
God. We believe that "just as Christ is truly risen from the
dead and lives forever, so after death the righteous will live
forever with the risen Christ." (Catechism of the Catholic
Church, n. 989)
Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. As
St. Paul said, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
(Philippians 1,21) Christians having died with Christ
sacramentally in Baptism, complete this "dying with Christ" when
they pass from this world in the grace of Christ. Like Jesus,
they can transform their own death into an act of love and
obedience towards the Father.
Our Christian hope is summed up by the Church's liturgy:
Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.
It is in the liturgy of Baptism that the Church welcomes a person
into the new life of faith, and it is in the liturgy of our
funeral rites that the Church accompanies the faithful on their
way to the new life of glory.
The Funeral Liturgy
The Order of Christian Funerals is the name of the liturgy by
which the Church commends the deceased to God and holds up for
all the faithful the hope of glory and of sharing in the final
resurrection with Christ.
The Order consists of three distinct major rites: The Vigil of
the Deceased, the Funeral Mass, and the Rite of Committal of the
body or the cremated remains. The Church assures that all our
faithful departed have a right to the complete funeral liturgy
and requires those who minister to provide all three major rites.
The final gift and blessing that family members can offer their
deceased loved one is the full celebration of the Church's
The full celebration of the liturgy helps the family and mourners
by providing the time and occasions necessary to absorb gradually
the loss of a loved one and to console one another. The liturgy
also offers the opportunity to honor the memory of the deceased,
to thank God for the gift of the loved one's life and to commend
the deceased to God's merciful love. In the liturgy we hear the
Scriptures speak to us consoling words of faith and hope. Most
of all, in the liturgy, we witness to our faith that there is a
spiritual bond between the living and the dead, as we accompany
our loved ones with the care of our own prayers and those of the
Preparation for the Liturgy
The Church encourages Christians to make preparations for the end
of their time on earth. Preparation for our own death - whether
in the form of advanced directives for medical care, wills or
pre-need planning for funeral and burial arrangements - can
greatly ease the burden on the family during the stressful time
immediately preceding and following death.
Besides helping the family, such preparation can be a powerful
expression of our own faith in the saving love of God. As an
expression of this faith, it would be particularly important that
we clearly indicate to our family or other responsible persons
our desire that we receive the full funeral liturgy at the time
of our death.
Family and friends may and should actively participate in the
planning and celebration of the funeral rites to the degree that
they find participation consoling and healing. In such planning,
parish leaders and ministers of consolation should give first
consideration to the wishes of the deceased.
While some adaptation of the rites is permitted, any effort to
eliminate one of the three major rites is strongly discouraged.
To omit any one of the rites is to deny the deceased the grace
offered by the Church at this time of need and to provide less
opportunity for the consolation offered family members and
friends through the liturgy.
The Funeral Mass
It is particularly important that the Mass be part of the funeral
liturgy. The Mass, the memorial of Christ's own death and
resurrection, is the principal celebration of a Catholic funeral.
The prayers, readings and especially the offering of the
eucharistic sacrifice are the Church's most powerful way of
commending the deceased to the loving care of the Lord.
The proper place for the celebration of Mass is a church, and
preferably the parish church of the deceased, though another
church may be chosen with the consent of its pastor. The Funeral
Mass is not to be celebrated in a private home, a funeral home or
a mausoleum chapel.
At the conclusion of the Mass a representative of the family may
offer a brief, well-prepared personal reflection.
The Vigil of the Deceased
The Church's funeral liturgy also includes a Scripture-centered
vigil service that is usually celebrated the evening before the
Funeral Mass in the place where the body is placed. The Vigil
invites the family and friends to turn to God's word as a source
of faith and hope. It also unites them in praying that the
Father of mercy receive the deceased into the kingdom of light
The Vigil is also an appropriate time for family and friends to
share stories and remembrances of the deceased. The Vigil is
scheduled at the time when most of the relatives and friends can
attend. Before or after the Vigil, there may also be other
prayers or devotions on behalf of the deceased.
The Rite of Committal
The concluding service of the funeral liturgy is the Rite of
Committal, which generally is held at the place of burial or
entombment. In some areas of the Diocese the practice of
accompanying the deceased and the family to the cemetery for the
Rite of Committal has become less common, and sometimes the
burial of the body is not witnessed at all, especially in the
winter. However, every effort should be made to see that the
Rite of Committal is provided.
If a winter burial is impossible, then the Rite of Committal may
take place at the cemetery chapel, if one is available, and also
later when the actual burial takes place.
The Rite of Committal recognizes in prayer that the grave or
place of interment has been transformed by means of Christ's
death and resurrection into a sign of hope and promise. The
words of faith also help the mourners to face the end of one
relationship with the deceased and to begin a new one based on
prayerful remembrance and the hope of resurrection and reunion.
Whenever possible, the Rite of Committal should be led by the
parish priest or properly prepared parish minister. In their
absence, a friend or family member may lead those present in the
While the Church recommends that the body of the deceased be
buried, it no longer forbids cremation. However, if cremation is
chosen, the Church encourages that the body be present for the
Vigil and Funeral Mass, and then be cremated. If this is not
possible, then the cremated remains may be brought to the Funeral
The cremated remains are always to be treated with respect and
reverence. They should be kept in an appropriate urn or
container that is then placed in a mausoleum, columbarium, or
proper grave. The place of entombment should be marked with a
plaque or stone to remember the deceased. The remains are not to
be scattered on land or sea or to be saved at home by family
members. The grave or mausoleum provides a final resting place
where family and friends can return to pray, reflect on their
loss and feel their connection with the loved one who has gone
Donation of the Body or Organs
Modern medical science has made it possible for organs to be
taken from our bodies after death to save the health and lives of
others. Such organ donation is not only permissible but even
meritorious. It is also permissible for persons to donate their
bodies for scientific research. In all such instances the body
of the deceased and all its portions are to be handled with the
greatest respect and to be interred or cremated in accord with
the best judgment of those who are professionally responsible.
In today's fast-paced society, there is a tendency to rush even
the sacred time that surrounds the death of a loved one. This
becomes increasingly easy in a culture that sees death as the
final end of everything rather than the beginning of a new stage
in our relationship with a loved one.
As Christians we know better, and the Church offers, even
insists, that we accept a time of prayer and faith-filled
reflection both for our own good and for the spiritual benefit of
our beloved one who has gone before us.
The Church's teaching that we continue beyond death to be one
community in Christ becomes more real for us when a loved one
dies. Just as we often prayed for our loved ones in this life,
we pray now that God's love will welcome them to eternal joy in
the company of Mary and all the saints.
Our participation in the Church's liturgy also can serve to
deepen our own faith and hope in the life to come. The prayers
and Scripture readings of the liturgy can speak so much more
powerfully when we are contending with the reality of death and
loss. In the Gospel we often read of Jesus reaching out to
comfort and call to faith someone who has lost a loved one. In
the funeral liturgy Jesus offers us the same message and
It is my hope that this pastoral message will encourage all of
us, people and priests, to put to the fullest use the beautiful
funeral liturgy that the Church provides. May God grant us
through the more faithful use of these funeral rites a deeper
appreciation of Jesus' words to his friend, Martha, as she
grieved the loss of her brother, Lazarus.
I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Most Reverend Robert J. Banks
Bishop of Green Bay
February 2, 2001
Feast of the Presentation
r1085PL A Pastoral Message on the Order of Christian Funerals by authority of the Bishop (2-2-01)