The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 23, 2001 Issue
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 liturgy.

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 Mass.



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 and peace.

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 service.



Cremation

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 Mass.

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 before them.



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.



Conclusion

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 consolation.

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)



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