Pastoral Letter

Passing Over with Jesus: The Church's Funeral Rites

Now there was a virtuous and righteous man named Joseph who, though he was a member of the council, had not consented to their plan of action.  He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea and was awaiting the kingdom of God.  He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  After he had taken the body down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb in which no one had yet been buried. It was the day of preparation, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come from Galilee with him followed behind, and when they had seen the tomb and the way in which his body was laid in it, they returned and prepared spices and perfumed oils.
— Luke 23:50-56

Our tradition of burial and praying for the dead is rooted  in  customs we have inherited from the Old Covenant.  We read in the Second Book of Maccabees, for example, that prayers and sacrifices for the dead are “holy and pious” and can have the power of freeing the dead from their sins.[1]  There are also numerous examples of burial in the Old Testament, and the account of Our Lord’s burial on Good Friday testifies to the care and reverence with which the bodies of the dead were treated by the Jewish people. 

The burial of Jesus also serves as a model because, for those who are baptized into Christ, the body becomes holy, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and deserving of special reverence.  We express this reverence through our funeral rites in several ways: the use of dignified coffins, clothing the coffin with the white pall, which serves as a reminder of the baptismal garment, the sprinkling of the body with holy water and the incensation at the end of the Funeral Mass, which symbolizes both reverence for the body and the rising of our prayers before the throne of God’s mercy.[2] 

To some degree, we could say that the three-part celebration of the Order of Christian Funerals has to do with three ways of showing this reverence to the body of the deceased, even as we pray for the repose of his or her soul:

  • Vigil for the Deceased:  Our first ritual encounter with the mystery of a person’s death, when prayers, memories, and emotions flood our hearts and find expression in the simple yet beautiful rite of keeping vigil near the body of the recently deceased.
  • Funeral Liturgy:  The central act of worship we offer for the dead, this liturgy is ordinarily celebrated in form of the Funeral Mass.  In the offering of the Holy Eucharist, we place the body of the deceased before the Lord’s altar, interceding for the one who has died and offering his or her life along with the Body and Blood of Jesus.   This “Prayer after Communion” from the Funeral Liturgy summarizes what we ask God to give to the relative or friend we are burying: Grant, we pray, almighty God, that your servant, who has journeyed from this world, may by this sacrifice be cleansed and freed from sin and so receive the everlasting joys of the resurrection.  Our own faith in the Paschal Mystery is also strengthened in celebrating the Funeral Mass:  In the eucharistic sacrifice, the Church’s celebration of Christ’s Passover from death to life, the faith of the baptized in the paschal mystery is renewed and nourished.[3]  These graces are renewed in the celebration of “month’s mind” and anniversary Masses for the dead.
  • Committal:  In this final act of the funeral rites, we perform in a most proximate way the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead.  In the Rite of Committal, we commit the body of the deceased to its final resting place, confident that the Lord Jesus Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like his in glory.[4]

Here it is appropriate for me to underscore that the Church’s clear preference is for burial of the bodies of her daughters and sons rather than their cremation.  In this we are witnessing to our belief that our bodies are made holy from the moment of Baptism and are destined to rise on the Last Day.  While the Church permits cremation when circumstances justify it, the choice of cremation must never express a denial of Church teaching.  Further, cremated remains must always be treated with the same respect the Church accords to the bodies of the deceased, and this includes their reverent disposition in a cemetery.  If the body of a Catholic is to be cremated, the Church clearly prefers, indeed urges us, that it be present for the funeral rites. [5]

Of course, the Church’s funeral rites are not only about showing reverence for the body of the deceased.  There are also many other ways each of these three parts of the funeral liturgy plays an important role in assisting both the dead and the living.  We have seen the great efficacy of the funeral rites in joining our beloved dead to the Passover of Jesus.  Our belief in the communion of saints also gives us the consolation of knowing our prayers are of great benefit to those who have died in Christ and are now undergoing purification in Purgatory, in preparation for the glory of heaven. 

And these rituals are also of great benefit to the mourners themselves.  First, all of the Church’s liturgical worship is redemptive, meaning it accomplishes the saving work of Jesus Christ in our lives.  This is the most important good fruit that comes to the living through their participation in the rites of Christian burial.  Second, the Church, like a good mother, consoles her children at their time of loss and grief:

The celebration of the Christian funeral brings hope and consolation to the living.  While proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and witnessing to Christian hope in the resurrection, the funeral rites also recall to all who take part in them God’s mercy and judgment and meet the human need to turn always to God in times of crisis.

Indeed, the faithful celebration of the Church’s funeral rites greatly benefits us spiritually and consoles us in our sorrow.

These rites also aid us in our relationships with God and with the whole community of faith.  Our coming together physically is a sign of the strengthening of our spiritual bonds, as we worship together and console one another with the faith and hope we have in Christ Jesus:

The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins.  At the funeral rites, especially at the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice, the Christian community affirms and expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in one great communion of saints.[6]

Unfortunately, many people today have come to see the Church’s funeral rites as overelaborate and unnecessary.  They will sometimes refer to the traditional funeral as “making a fuss” or “making a big deal” out of death and mourning.  As the principal pastor of the faithful here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, I certainly need to acknowledge the often legitimate motivations that prompt concern about matters such as the cost of funerals, but I also need to offer the truth that the funeral rites themselves are essential to the life of the Church, and that these rites ought to be celebrated at the death of every Christian.   No Catholic should pass over to the Father without being accompanied by the prayers of the Church. 

Whenever one of the faithful dies, we have a duty to celebrate these rites with reverence, awe, and great faith and hope. While there are often genuine human or economic concerns motivating those who wish to set aside our funeral rites, even these legitimate concerns should only modify, and not change in any essential way, the form of Christian burial given to us by Christ through his Church. 

The funeral rites of the Church are some of the most beautiful, evocative, and powerful expressions of our Catholic faith.  They are gifts given to us by God our Father. 

Christian burial is also an act of charity we offer for one another.   Whenever financial or logistical concerns burden a grieving family, pastors and their co-workers should do all they can to accommodate the legitimate requests of the faithful.  The faithful, in turn, are called to honor the leadership given by their pastors, and to recognize that there can be many reasons—of a spiritual or practical nature—why certain accommodations may be impossible. The whole journey of the Christian funeral is a sacred time, when the Church’s ministers and those who mourn are called to cooperate in charity as they plan and celebrate these sacred rites.

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[1] 2 Maccabees 12:43-46.

[2] Cf. Revelation 8:4, "The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel".

[3] General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, 3.

[4] Order of Christian Funerals, 219.

[5] Order of Christian Funerals, 413-414, 417, 426 (cf. CIC 1176 § 3).

[6] General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, 6.