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Traditional Catholic Church Cemetery

Catholic funeral traditions and customs

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Funerals are a way to honor someone’s life and provide loved ones with a chance to say goodbye. Many religions and cultures have unique rituals and customs to mark someone’s passing, and Catholicism is no different. As a Catholic, you may want to have a traditional Catholic funeral or incorporate some of the traditions into your memorial service. Learn more about Catholic funeral traditions below. 

What is the Catholic tradition when someone dies?

The funeral rite is a series of rituals carried out after someone passes away. Catholic funeral traditions include three ceremonies: the wake, the funeral mass, and the committal.

1. Wake

In the first couple of days after someone dies, it’s traditional for friends and family to gather either at the church, funeral home, or family home for the wake (also called the vigil). This takes place before the funeral.

A priest typically leads the wake. Prayers are said for the person who has passed away, and people read from the bible or recite the rosary. There may be other readings, songs and poetry, and people usually read eulogies and share fond memories of the departed. The wake gives family and friends a chance to come together, comfort one another, and mourn before the funeral mass and committal.

2. Funeral mass

The funeral mass is a formal ceremony that takes place in a Catholic church, after the wake. For Catholics, the funeral mass carries great importance, as it represents the soul being returned to God and passing over into the afterlife. It also provides a chance for people to pray for the person who has passed, and for their family.

Catholic funeral traditions dictate that to start the ceremony, the casket or urn is carried into the church. This reflects the person being carried back to be with God. The priest often sprinkles the casket or urn with Holy Water as it is carried. Once placed at the altar for the ceremony, it is traditional to place symbolic items onto the casket, such as a bible or crucifix.

The priest will lead prayers and speak about the resurrection and judgment day. The congregation prays that God will have mercy on the person’s soul and allow them into heaven. Often, a Holy Communion ceremony will take place as part of the funeral service. Anyone present who has been committed and baptized as a Catholic will step forward to receive Communion. If the family would like any additional readings or pieces of music which hold personal value, then these can also be included.

3. Committal of the urn or casket

During this final ceremony, the person who has passed away is committed to their resting place. More Catholic funeral traditions take place at the committal. For people who have chosen burial, this is when the casket is lowered into the ground. The priest waves incense over the casket to represent prayers being offered to God on behalf of the person who has passed. The congregation says prayers and as the casket is lowered into the ground, the priest recites the line “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

Cremation is allowed by the Catholic church, but the ashes cannot be freely scattered or kept at home. Catholics believe that when judgment day comes, people who have passed away will be resurrected, so it’s important to keep the body in one, sacred place. This might be buried in a cemetery or mausoleum, or in another protected area, such as a memorial forest.

Common questions about Catholic funerals

How long after death should a Catholic be buried?

The funeral and burial take place between 2 and 7 days after someone has died — typically around three days after. The ceremonies are usually not held on a Sunday, as this day is reserved for the traditional Sunday church service. Funerals and burials are not held on some Holy Days, such as Easter. If you are choosing cremation, you will also need to bear in mind how long it takes to receive ashes after cremation.

What is the order of a Catholic funeral mass?

Typically, a Catholic funeral mass will have the following structure:

  • Introduction and greeting by the priest
  • Procession of priest, casket, and congregation into the church
  • Songs and prayers
  • Bible readings
  • Holy Communion (Mass)
  • More prayers
  • Casket is walked back down the aisle and out of the church

How long is a Catholic funeral?

A Catholic funeral service (the funeral mass) usually lasts around 30 minutes. It can be up to 60 minutes if the ceremony includes Holy Communion. The rite of committal takes place afterward, on the same day, and lasts another 45 minutes. The whole funeral rite, including the wake, mass, and committal takes place over two days.

What should I wear to a Catholic funeral?

As in many cultures and traditions, it is traditional to wear black or dark colors to a Catholic funeral. Dark clothing is seen as a sign of respect, honoring the somber occasion. Catholic funeral and cemetery services are quite formal, so you should dress modestly, with shoulders and knees covered.

Some people prefer the idea of wearing bright or colorful clothing to a funeral so that it feels like a celebration of the person’s life. If this is something that’s important to you, you could discuss this with the priest, and it might be possible. Alternatively, you could arrange a separate celebration of life ceremony a couple of weeks after the traditional funeral rite.

Are there flowers at Catholic funerals?

Yes, decorating the casket and the church with flowers is one of the Catholic funeral traditions. However, as with the rest of the ceremony, Catholic funeral flowers tend to be quite formal and traditional, so you should avoid flowers with balloons or cuddly toys, etc.

Planning a Catholic funeral

Your priest will be able to help you with planning traditional Catholic funeral and cemetery services. You could plan the funeral with a funeral home, who can hold the wake for you and arrange Catholic funeral flowers as well. You should also think about whether you would prefer to be buried or cremated, and where you would like the rite of committal to take place.

Death can be a painful topic to think about. However, making end-of-life plans in advance can give you a sense of relief that everything will be looked after when you’re gone. It also takes part of the emotional and organizational burden away from your loved ones.

Alternative funeral options

If you’re not sure whether a traditional funeral is right for you, there are different options available. You could mix some elements of a traditional Catholic funeral with a more personalized memorial. A traditional Catholic wake and funeral mass could be followed by a forest ceremony where your ashes are placed at the base of a memorial tree. Whether you choose a traditional religious ceremony or an alternative, you should plan a ceremony that feels right for you.

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