There are several funeral rituals involved in Catholic Funerals.  In planning for your own end of life, it is best to start early.  Beyond the funeral Mass and burial, there are many considerations.

Every Catholic may have a Mass of Christian Burial celebrated for them, with a Vigil Service (Christian Wake) beforehand and a related graveside committal following. In addition, there are several other smaller rites which a family may take part in: Gathering in the Presence of the Body and Transferring the Body to the Place of Burial. If a loved one has not made arrangements ahead of time, we have planning resources to help select readings and hymns. The family is involved in making these decisions, within the guidelines the Church provides.

Immediate Concerns

Keeping Vigil (Christian Wake)

A service for mourners, sometimes coinciding with a viewing (but not necessarily) consists of a Liturgy of the Word and/or other rites and/or devotions may be used at a wake service the day prior to a Mass of Christian Burial.  This is an appropriate time to gather loved ones for a typical eulogy (as one is not always appropriate at Mass), perhaps a meal together following, and an evening of celebrating the life of your loved one.  A priest or deacon may be present from a parish to help preside over the liturgy, ritual, or devotion (but there are variations if clergy cannot be available).  

Gathering in the Presence of the Body

Prior to the Vigil or prior to the Mass of Christian Burial, the immediate family may gather one last time around the body for prayers and petitions. This rite may also take place at a funeral home prior to cremation.

Mass of Christian Burial

A Mass takes place at a Catholic church or consecrated chapel.  Catholics in a state of grace may receive the Eucharist.  Vestments may be white or black.  The Paschal Candle is used (as it was at baptism).  A Pall is placed over the casket (or urn).  Holy water is sprinkled on the casket or urn, recalling our baptism. Incense is used, as our prayers for our loved one rise up to heaven.

Rite of Committal (Graveside)

The final farewell to our loved ones takes place as they transition into the earth (or a similar entombment).  This includes the blessing of the ground with Holy Water, intercessions, a scripture reading, and prayers for the dead as well as those present. This is another occasion when a eulogy or simular remarks might be offered.  It is often before or after this interment when family and friends might gather to further celebrate their loved one.


When Old Age and Illness Dawn – A Sacrament of Healing

The Church, since the time of the Apostles, has used the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick for help in healing to those who are gravely ill or who are afflicted by the rigors of old age, as Christ did when he was among us in the flesh.  When a Catholic is sick, they may call for the priest, who lays on hands, prays, and anoints with the Oil of the Infirmed (the palms and the forehead are blessed).  This sacrament may be requested and provided many times during life, when one is gravely ill, preparing for surgery, a dangerous procedure, or as old age begins to take grip. This anointing is a temporary remittance of grave sin, but much like a general confession of many in time of crisis, must be followed by the Sacrament of Reconciliation for absolution if life goes on in the flesh.

Preparing for Passage to Eternal Life – Food for the Journey – Viaticum

Receiving the Eucharist, daily, as one heads towards death is the proper preparation for the Christian.  Just as the Israelites ate manna daily in the desert as they wandered to the promised land, so too do we eat this Bread from Heaven as we head in our exodus to the True Promised Land, eternity with God.  It is best to receive this True Food during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but if that is not possible, a communion service for the sick is possible by a duly installed and trained Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.  This rite should include a renewal of baptismal promises prior to the Universal Prayer, when administered by a priest or deacon (#181 PCS).  Additionally, the words “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life” are added when the sick person receives communion (#181 PCS).  Special General Intercessions and Solemn Blessings are available in the case of those receiving viaticum (the latter, in the case of Mass or when a priest is administering the rite) (#182 PCS). Generally, Viaticum is accompanied by the Apostolic Pardon, if administered by a priest, which carries with it a plenary indulgence (see below).

Final Opportunities for Reconciliation

At any point, any Catholic may receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and should do so urgently before receiving the Eucharist if they are not in a state of grace (have committed a mortal sin).  If they are receiving viaticum during Mass, a confession may take the place of the penitential rite, but should otherwise (and ideally) take place before any rites or liturgies.  

The Apostolic Pardon – a Final Plenary Indulgence – A Gift of the Church

A priest may offer to someone in danger of death The Apostolic Pardon, a plenary indulgence to assist with the temporal punishment due to sin in life, which we would face in purgatory.  A person must be contrite and desirous of friendship with God for the efficaciousness of The Apostolic Pardon. If Viaticum is administered by a priest, the Apostolic Pardon is part of the rite.

At the Moments of Death – Commendation of the Dying

The Church provides a rich store of readings, litanies, prayers, and actions to perform with and for a dying person, which can involve family members and others present.  A priest or deacon may certainly preside in this ritual, but any faithful Christian may do the same, in a modified way.

Prayer After Death for the Deceased

Immediately after a person has passed away, a series of petitions are made with the response of those present, concluding with a final prayer and the signing of the forehead of our deceased brother or sister with the cross, and if clergy or present, sprinkling the body with holy water.

Acknowledging the Living – Prayer for Family and Friends (Mourners)

The living give God thanks.  Our loved one is now unable to do anything for himself or herself, but we remain to remember him or her, offering prayers, offering up our sufferings, and offering the Holy Mass.  We pray that God be our refuge and our strength as we continue on in Christian Hope.

Praying for the Dead

Offering Masses for the Dead

It is a common and laudable practice for us as Catholics to “have Masses said” for the dead.  As a means of offering condolences to families, you may have the Mass intention at your local parish be for the deceased.  We may offer intentions for our own loved ones as well, at any point.  This assists our loved ones with their purification in purgatory, applying a salve of expiatory graces from the treasury of graces available to the Church through the merits of the Communion of Saints.

40 Days Masses

Slightly more than a month after a loved one dies, there is a custom of having a special Mass for the Dead (at a daily Mass time) said for a loved one.  This differs from a Mass intention in that the whole Mass is oriented around not only offering the graces of the Mass, but to assist those present in their loss. 40 days mimics our Lenten journey of purification and enlightenment.

Anniversary Masses

Much like the 40 day Masses, anniversary Masses (either on the day of death or on the day of the Mass of Christian Burial) are whole Masses focused on the deceased, with readings, intentions, Eucharistic Prayer additions, a homily, and possibly hymns focused on a single person.  The purpose here is much the same as the 40 day Mass: to relieve some of the purification experience of purgatory and for the family and remaining loved ones present.

All Souls Day

Each year, the Church commemorates all the faithful departed souls on November 2nd (after All Saints Day).  This day includes our loved ones who may be in heaven or purgatory, especially those who have passed in the last year, but certainly from all ages.  Special prayers are offered for those who are in purgatory.  We can use this time to remember all our loved ones who have gone to their sleep in the hope of rising again.

At Every Mass

With each Eucharistic Prayer, we pray for the living and the dead.  In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when heaven and earth meet and we offer the sacrifice of our lives in this moment to the holy and living eternal sacrifice of Christ in heaven, we are very very close to our loved ones, as we have, in a way, access to eternity.  Our prayers at this point may very well be for our loved ones somewhat regardless of time, as we endeavor to see now as God sees, with all present at once.  This is an excellent reason to make attending Mass, perhaps especially Daily Mass, a habit: we can spend time with our loved ones in a spiritual communion, bound up more tightly in the mystical Body of Christ.

Personal Prayers

We are asked to pray without ceasing, or as Paul exhorts: constantly.  These prayers can be for the help of our loved ones to move expediently through purgatory.  We can in time with discernment, in hopes they are in heaven, ask for their intercession and pray with them.  The dead in Christ are quite alive.

Acting For the Dead

Working on Plenary Indulgences for the Dead

Our Church has a rich tradition of using a treasury of graces amassed by the Communion of Saints to help reduce the temporal punishment due to the effects of sin we amass in the world with our lives.  When we say Masses, when the saints have suffered, we believe that in our Economy of Salvation, there is a substitutiary quality to that suffering.  That is, it can be applied to the plights and difficulties of others.  Primarily, this takes the form of the partial and plenary indulgence.  The Church has a whole Manual of Indulgences which outlines the circumstances under which you can “do the work” to obtain an indulgence, which you can then apply to a loved one (or perhaps, yourself).  You can obtain them often (though not more than one per day). This “work” is not expiation of sins, but rather, removal of temporal punishment due to sin.

Suffer, Sacrifice, Then “Offer it up”

Jesus Christ showed us how to suffer through pain and dejection “all the way down” from heaven past the gates of the underworld and back up, making suffering into redeeming suffering.  When we suffer in life, we aren’t to run away from it, but “suffer through it” and offer up that pain to the poor souls in Purgatory, for a specific soul, for reparation against offenses against God or the Immaculate Heart of Mary … many possible things.  But in this context, we can offer it up for our dear loved one, possibly in Purgatory.  Our grief and loss is something too that we can offer up.

Mourn and Grieve

Acknowledge Who We Are and What Has Happened

While we can do many things for our loved ones, even when they are gone (indeed, when they can do nothing for themselves for a time), we also simply are a certain way.  We have lost someone we care about and we will feel that loss when we want to speak with them or feel their touch or exchange a knowing glance.  Their absence will be felt.  We will think about what they were doing and what they wanted to do in life, and perhaps what we wanted to do with them; naturally, it will be sad for us.  This will be magnified when we know we cannot be mollified by the trite deception that “they are in a better place.”  We don’t quite know that for certain at their moment of death.  That’s OK, because we have a toolkit.  But we also need to move on as human persons and discover how to live our lives effectively without our friend or loved one with us in the flesh (though they remain in our hearts).

Join a Bereavement Group

Parishes offer groups or meetings during the course of the year for those who have experienced a loss.  Take advantage of these.  They give you the opportunity to form community, give you a framework to have discussions, and a safe place to weep.

Wear the Clothes of Mourning

As Catholics, we know and acknowledge that our outward dispositions are reflective of and reinforcing of our inward dispositions.  It was a long-standing tradition to wear black for a year, and gradually downgrade to more “usual” tones during the second year.  There is value in some version of this.  While your loved one isn’t going to imagine you have forgotten them, it is perfectly acceptable and good to have an outward sign indicating that you have a loss and that you want to remember it.  The people in your life never disappear: they are always a part of you … some are more on our mind at some times than at others.

Scroll to Top