Like many Catholic ceremonies, funerals are full of ritual and tradition. They tend to be very solemn occasions, but are also an opportunity for those left behind to find closure and comfort in the support of close family and friends.
If you ever need to arrange a Catholic funeral or are asked to attend one, knowing what happens at the service means you’ll know what to expect, making you more comfortable and at ease.
Catholic beliefs about death
There are many different types of funeral services, each with their own rituals and traditions that generally relate to specific beliefs about death. Catholics believe in the afterlife and what you do during their lifetime determines whether their soul goes to heaven, hell, or purgatory.
Purgatory is for people who have committed forgivable sins. Souls which have been repented can’t go directly to heaven. Instead, they serve their time in a place or state of suffering before going to heaven. That place is purgatory.
Not all modern Catholics believe in purgatory themselves, however, it is still an official doctrine of the Catholic faith.
Catholic funeral traditions
After a Catholic person dies, plans can be made for their funeral. Catholics can have either a burial or cremation service, but the Catholic Church prefers burials.
Catholic funerals focus on the appealing to God to be merciful on the deceased person’s soul.
Traditionally, the funeral service is held in a Catholic Church, led by a Catholic priest. Sometimes, the funeral can also take place at a funeral home.
Since the 1960s, the Catholic Church has allowed cremation. However in 2016 the Vatican clarified the rules regarding the disposition of ashes, stating that scattering ashes is not permitted, nor dividing them or keeping the ashes at home. The ashes should be placed, intact, in consecrated ground such as a cemetery.
The Catholic funeral service
Catholic funerals typically take place two days to a week after a person’s death. However, it is not traditional for them to be held on a Sunday.
The Catholic funeral service is made up of several parts:
- The Vigil
- The Catholic funeral mass
- The Holy Communion
- Graveside service.
For many practising Catholics the vigil is still an important part of a funeral. Most happen at the church with the coffin taken into the building the night before the funeral and a special service is held. Occasionally vigils can take place at the home of the person who has died or in a funeral home.
In the UK it is usual for the coffin to be closed.
The Catholic funeral mass
Funeral services differ depending on whether the service includes The Eucharist and Holy Communion. If these elements are included, it’s called the Funeral Mass or more commonly the Requiem Mass and the service will take place in a Church.
The focus will be on the church’s teachings rather than the life of the deceased, usually only a short eulogy can be given by a family member or friend before prayers known as the Final Commendation and the coffin is again sprinkled with holy water.
After the service inside the Church has finished, the coffin is usually transported to the cemetery or crematorium for burial or interment. This is known as the rite of committal.
The Priest will typically bless the site and then lead family and friends in prayer and give them a chance to say their final goodbyes.
Catholic funeral readings and songs
Sacred Catholic hymns or songs, Catholic funeral readings, and prayers are sung and recited during the ceremony. The readings and songs chosen are meant to express hope, offer consolation, and remind the mourners about the resurrection of Jesus Christ so that the pain of death has a purpose.
Two popular readings are:
2 Timothy 2:11-12a
If we die with Christ, we shall live with him,
and if we persevere we shall also reign with him.
Blessed are those who die in the Lord;
let them rest from their labours for their good deeds go with them.
Music at a Catholic funeral is restricted to Catholic funeral hymns or sacred music, popular music is not usually permitted. Classical composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Gabriel Faure and Benjamin Britten have all written pieces of music entitled Requiem Mass.
What to wear to a Catholic funeral
Catholic funerals tend to be very solemn occasions, which means funeral etiquette demands that mourners dress appropriately and smartly in dark colours, more typically black. Some churches are increasingly open to colourful dress codes and other alternative options. But if you’re not sure, avoid casual clothing such as jeans, sportswear, hoodies, trainers, and slogan t-shirts.
Religious funerals in the UK
Funerals are an important tradition for many different cultures, faiths and religions. Whether you’re attending religious funerals or some other type, you’re showing your support to the bereaved, praying for the dead, and receiving some closure.
Catholic funerals in the UK do not follow the same order of service as a typical Church of England or similar Christian funeral. If you need to attend a non-Catholic service, read our short guide on Christian funerals, so you know what to expect in advance.