Let us celebrate Christian funerals ‘rite-fully’

This column is the second in a three-part series by the Archdiocesan Office of Worship.

By Anastasia Nicklaus

Special to The Witness

Liturgy allows us to affirm and express the union of the church on earth and the church in heaven. The hope of this great communion of saints can be most consoling and crucial at the time of death. Through the funeral rites, the church gathers in faith of the power of the Lord’s death and resurrection.

Note the plural — “rites.” The funeral rites (vigil, liturgy, committal) correspond to the three principal ritual movements in the funerals of Christians (Order of Celebrating Funerals, 5). Wisely, these rites also correspond to a Christian concept of grief, recognizing our sadness in the loss of the physical presence of our loved one while also maintaining hope in commending our beloved one to the author of life and recognizing our continued bond through the great communion of saints. Times of loss can be times of uncertainty. The funeral rites of the church provide a sturdy structure we can rely upon — even when the mourners may be away from practice of the faith or unfamiliar with the rites.

Some have chosen against having the complete rites. The reasons for omitting funeral rites are many: family members have strayed from practice and feel uncomfortable, concern about how many (or few) will attend, a desire to ‘personalize’ time, discouragement from the funeral home that is assisting, uncomfortability with the reality of death, and even financial concerns, just to name a few. However, omitting any of the major rites comes with great effect, as each has been gifted to us by the church as a means to bring the paschal mystery into our grief in a unique way. Together, the complete funeral rites allow the church to most fully accompany those who grieve and to intercede on behalf of the deceased.

A reading of the rites makes clear that while many choices of readings and prayers exist within each of the rites, the omission of any of them is considered outside the norm. By taking a look at the “why” of each of the rites, we can perhaps better recognize the significance of each.

Vigil.  The vigil takes place between the time of death and the funeral liturgy. Recognizing how much raw emotion can fill this time immediately following a death, the vigil allows the church, the people of God, to keep “watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and [find] strength in Christ’s presence” (56). The vigil, as a Liturgy of the Word, includes song, Scripture readings, prayers of intercession, and introductory and concluding prayers. The option also offers time for family or friend/s to speak in remembrance of the deceased. Often, such time can be unifying and healing.

Funeral liturgy.  Typically, the central funeral liturgy will be the Mass. This liturgy is central both in that it happens between the vigil and the committal and because of the efficacy of the eucharistic sacrifice. When Mass cannot be celebrated, the funeral liturgy outside Mass is used.

“At the funeral liturgy the community gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the paschal mystery” (129).

At the conclusion of this liturgy, we entrust our loved one to the gentle and merciful embrace of God through the rite of final commendation and farewell. Holy water reminds us that through baptism we are marked for eternal life. Incense signifies respect for the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (147).

The funeral liturgy particularly leads the assembly to remember Christ’s victory over sin and death and to sustain our faith in the resurrection. When the vigil is omitted, a temptation comes to try to fit other components into this central liturgy. This tends to move the assembly backward liturgically and emotionally, which demonstrates the value of celebrating each of the funeral rites.

Rite of Committal. As a final act of the community of faith in caring for the body of its deceased member, in this rite we commit our loved one to the place of interment. The Christian community expresses our hope that the deceased awaits the glory of the resurrection, together with all who have gone before marked with the sign of faith (206). This is a time of stark realization of the pain of separation in this life from the deceased. The rite of committal “can help the mourners to face the end of one relationship with the deceased and to begin a new one based on prayerful remembrance, gratitude, and the hope of resurrection and reunion” (213). Even in the finality of the committal, the Christian community can offer hope through celebrating these liturgical rites.

As we pray in the first preface of a funeral Mass, we as Catholic Christians believe that life for the deceased has changed, not ended. This is true, too, for those who mourn. Let us, then, celebrate the funeral rites completely and faithfully, so that this mystery and promise may be most fully expressed.

Nicklaus is a member of the Archdiocesan Worship Commission and the liturgy and music coordinator at St. Edward Parish in Waterloo.


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