There are three main liturgies provided by the Catholic Church at the time of death: the Funeral Vigil Service, the Funeral Liturgy; and the Committal Service at the cemetery or place of interment.
Every baptized Catholic, catechumen in preparation for baptism, even children not yet baptized but whose parents desired baptism for their children, are entitled to these rites celebrated within the Christian community at the time of death.
The Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) also includes prayers that may be prayed right after death, at the first gathering in the presence of the body, and at the time the body is transferred to the church.
The purpose of these rites is to pray or intercede for the deceased, asking God to forgive their sins and to grant them a place in the heavenly kingdom. The funeral rites of the church also seek to comfort the mourners by strengthening faith in Christ’s resurrection with our hope of reuniting with our loved ones in eternal life. The importance of witness to the Christian way of life is also emphasized.
The funeral vigil service
The funeral vigil is a Liturgy of the Word consisting of an introductory rite, readings from Scripture, a responsorial psalm, a brief homily or instruction on the readings, intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer and a concluding rite. Family members may help to select readings and the music for the vigil and for the other funeral liturgies.
A priest, deacon or properly trained layperson may serve as leader of the vigil liturgy. This liturgy may be celebrated in the church, a funeral home or even in the home of the deceased.
During the days of mourning prior to the funeral liturgy, other devotions such as the rosary may be prayed at the request of the family. Such devotions are in addition to the funeral vigil but do not replace it.
The funeral Mass and rite of committal
The funeral Mass is celebrated in the church with members of the parish, family and friends in the assembly. In most instances the coffin accompanied by family members is received at the entrance of the church. The coffin is sprinkled with the waters of baptism then processed to a place near the altar.
Christian symbols may be placed on the coffin, such as a white pall (reminder of the white garment given at baptism) or a book of the Scriptures. The Mass is then celebrated as usual until after the prayer after Communion. The final commendation usually includes incensation of the coffin, a song of farewell that affirms our faith in the resurrection and a prayer of commendation. A procession to the final resting place follows where a very brief “committal liturgy” is celebrated.
Are eulogies permitted at Catholic funeral liturgies?
The instructions within the funeral rites caution that the brief homily given by the priest or deacon should be based on the Scripture readings and must not be a eulogy (OCF, intro. 27). However, in the funeral vigil service (before the concluding blessing) and also during the funeral Mass (bewteen the Communion rite and the final commendation) there is an opportunity for a designated member of the family or friend to speak in remembrance of the deceased. Many families select the vigil liturgy for this time of remembrance since there may be less time constraints and less formality. For these “words of remembrance” (OCF 80, 170) during the funeral Mass, it is most important that the remarks are focused on the deceased life as a witness of faith. Many parishes require a written copy in advance to ensure a reasonable length and appropriateness of content.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.