As we enter into the month of November, the month traditionally dedicated to the dead, the Church points us to the afterlife and reminds us of eternal things. As such, it might be a good time to review the Mass of Christian Burial, popularly called the Funeral Mass.
What is it? Why is it important? How should it be celebrated?
First, it’s good to start with the most important thing. The Funeral Mass is about the worship of God. In colloquial language, “it’s God’s show.” It’s the celebration of God’s life. After the focus on God, the Funeral Mass is then about the deceased. Contrary to the claims, “The funeral is for the living,” the Funeral Mass is for the person who has died.
The Catholic funeral is the solemn prayer and supplication of the Church on earth, as a portion of the Body of Christ, for its member who has died. The funeral petitions the mercy of God and begs eternal rest and peace for the one who has experienced temporal death.
In Christ, the funeral’s purpose is to assist in the Christian’s transition from this life to the next: from the Church on earth, hopefully through the Church in purgatory, and then to the Church in heaven.
As the Body of Christ, we pray that the deceased Christian will rest in Abraham’s bosom and know the joys of paradise forever. Certainly, the family and loved ones of the deceased Christian have a special place in this prayerful action of the whole church. While this special place is a favored participation in the communal prayer of the whole body, it does not of itself define or shape the Church’s prayer.
The funeral is best understood as a process of three stations, which are meant to order and guide both the prayer for the dead and the grief and sorrow of loved ones.
The first station is called the vigil, popularly known as the wake, and was traditionally celebrated in the family’s home. Perhaps celebrated in a funeral parlor now, it is still a casual and deeply family-centered time of prayer and is meant as an opportunity for eulogies, stories, and common sharing. The vigil begins the liturgical prayer for the deceased Christian.
The second station, and the central act of the Body of Christ, is the Mass of Christian Burial; what most people think of as the funeral. There is an option for this prayer to be celebrated outside of Mass, but it is only to be used for serious pastoral reasons because of the power of the Eucharist in assisting the repose of the soul. This station has the Eucharistic offering as its heart, and it is the focus of the entire funeral process.
The Mass expands the prayer of the family and places it within the overall prayer of the universal Body of Christ. The family is now participates in the sacrifice for the deceased with all their brothers and sisters in Christ.
For this reason, the family, loved ones, funeral directors, or even priests cannot alter or change, modify or accommodate the Mass to any personal or esoteric desires. Eulogies are not preferred because the focus is on the resurrection and the person’s eternal life in God.
The music for the funeral is to be from within the Church’s tradition and not from popular fads or cultural trends, even if favored by the deceased. Photo displays, ostentatious flower arrangements, or anything that might take away from the focus of the Mass should be tempered.
This is the prayer of the Church, and not of any one person, family, or congregation. It is meant to unite the whole body and serve the deceased person’s spiritual good.
The third station is the rite of committal, commonly called the graveside service. This is when the Church accompanies the family to the place of burial, blesses the place of rest, and offers further prayers for the deceased Christian.
The Catholic funeral process is a time of intercession and supplication. Through these traditional ritual acts, God’s grace is given, the departed Christian receives spiritual help, and loved ones can find consolation.
The funeral is for the departed, and that emphasis should not be lost. In general, the supernatural focus and ancient beauty of the Catholic funeral must be cherished and preserved at all costs. The spiritual opportunity offered by the Funeral Mass should be eagerly sought out by the family and loved ones of the departed Christian and should be solemnly celebrated and prayed by the local parish community.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby