Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As you know, the Church prays for all the deceased in a special way during the month of November. We will continue our reflection on the funeral rites of the Church throughout this month. Last week, we were reminded that the funeral serves a twofold purpose: to pray for the salvation of the deceased person and to help those who mourn offer thanksgiving, find hope, and recall the promise of the resurrection. With that in mind, it is worth reflecting on how the Catholic Church’s funeral rites are structured. The Rite of Christian Burial is a three-part liturgy.
The liturgy begins with the Vigil for the Deceased, commonly called the wake. While a wake usually lasts several hours, the liturgical prayer offered during that time is very brief, and serves to set the tone for the evening. “We believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.” (Vigil for the Deceased—Rite of Christian Burial 71). Reminded of this truth, during the wake we have an opportunity for friends and family to come together to pray, remember the life of the deceased, and prepare for the funeral Mass the next day. The wake is a moment to pay respects, to share memories and stories, and to comfort one another.
The Mass of Christian Burial ordinarily takes place the day after the wake. In this Mass, the Church reminds us of our hope that those who have faith will share in the Resurrection of Jesus. Rooted in the symbolism of baptism, the casket is sprinkled with holy water, covered with a white cloth, and placed before the Easter candle. The Scripture readings point us to God’s mercy and remind us that Jesus has triumphed over sin and death. A homily serves to focus our attention on the fact that, for the Christian, death is not the end, but a new beginning of life, and thus we, as a community of faith, have a responsibility to pray for the eternal salvation of the deceased. The proper title for a funeral Mass is “Mass of Christian Burial”—other names (e.g. celebration of life, mass of resurrection) should not be used.
The Rite of Committal follows the Mass and takes place at the cemetery. Burial reflects our Catholic belief in the dignity of the body, and our anticipation of the resurrection of the dead. Short prayers are said at the graveside and mourners are able to say a final goodbye to their loved one. The burial of the body provides a visible moment of closure and an end to the funeral rites of the Church.
These three liturgical moments are vital in the Church’s ministry and pastoral practice. They provide structure and guidance for our prayer when faced with death, allow us to properly entrust the soul of our beloved deceased to the mercy of God, and give us comfort in the familiarity of ritual. Next week’s reflection will use this foundational explanation of the structure of the Rite of Christian Burial to explain other elements of how the Church prays for the dead and ministers to the grieving.