This guide to Catholic funerals explains everything you need to know about Catholic beliefs about death, Catholic funeral rites, including the recommended dress code and etiquette for mourning. Here at Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals, we provide religious and traditional funeral services.
What Is a Catholic Funeral?
A Catholic funeral is a religious service held for someone of the Catholic faith who has passed away. It serves an essential function for the survivors, who believe that the soul lives on after death.
That's a belief shared by all Christians, whose faith dictates that, depending on how righteous a life you lived, your soul continues in either Heaven or Hell.
However, Catholics believe in a third destination for the soul: Purgatory.
Purgatory is for souls who have committed forgivable sins during their lifetime and who may eventually end up in Heaven.
Therefore, to encourage such forgiveness, the Catholic funeral is a time to appeal to God to be merciful on the deceased person's soul.
With this in mind, you should expect a lot of prayers said at the Catholic funeral you would be attending.
There will likely be much talk of the deceased now being with God in Heaven to comfort those who are grieving.
How Long Is a Catholic Funeral?
If you're wondering how long a Catholic funeral lasts, the answer varies depending on whether the service includes a Requiem Mass.
If one is included, the funeral lasts around 60 minutes. Otherwise, it is about 30 minutes long.
How Long Is a Catholic Funeral Mass?
As mentioned above, a funeral mass lasts around 30 minutes – taking the overall funeral to around an hour.
What Happens Before a Catholic Funeral?
After a Catholic has died, their family may hold a prayer vigil on the evening before their funeral, sometimes called reception of the body.
The prayer vigil usually happens at the Church where the funeral will occur but can also be at the family home or a funeral director's chapel of rest.
At the prayer vigil, mourners are encouraged to pray in remembrance of the person who has died.
This gathering is usually led by a priest or a deacon, though an un-ordained lay-priest may also preside over it.
The family of the person who has died might also request that eulogies and other tributes are delivered at the Vigil.
What Happens at a Catholic Funeral?
The format of a Catholic funeral service depends on whether it includes a Requiem Mass, which consists of the Eucharistic Prayer and Holy Communion.
Requiem Masses are not necessary but encouraged by the Church and are often the wish of practising Catholics.
If the coffin were not received by the Church the evening before the funeral, it would be greeted at the door on the day by the priest. He will sprinkle the coffin with holy water and lead it into the Church.
The coffin will be placed on a catafalque at the altar, covered with a special cloth called a pall.
The funeral liturgy will include at least one reading from the Old Testament and a psalm read by family, friends, or the priest.
The priest will read a passage from one of the gospels, deliver a sermon and give a eulogy for the person who has died.
If the funeral includes a Requiem Mass, then bread and wine might be placed on the altar for Holy Communion.
Mourners will form a procession to receive Holy Communion or, if they are not a Catholic, a blessing from the priest.
After Holy Communion, there might be a further eulogy before special prayers, called the Final Commendation.
Afterwards, the coffin is sprinkled with more holy water and friends and family say goodbye to their loved ones.
An ordained priest can only perform holy Communion, and if one is not available, the funeral liturgy will not include Mass.
How Long Is a Catholic Funeral After Death?
Catholic funerals usually occur within three days of the death but can be anything up to a week.
When a Catholic is nearing death, special rites and Holy Communion is often carried out by a priest or deacon.
After the person has died, their family members may hold a vigil service, also referred to as the body's reception, the evening before the funeral.
Here mourners may pray for their loved ones, play music, sing Catholic funeral hymns, or deliver tributes.
This service can occur in their local Church, at a funeral home or in the family home.
Catholic Beliefs About Death
Catholics believe in the afterlife and that actions throughout their life will determine whether their soul goes to Heaven, hell, or purgatory.
Purgatory is for people who have committed forgivable sins in their lifetime; souls who have been repented can't go directly to Heaven. Instead, they must serve their time in a place or state of suffering (purgatory) before going to Heaven.
Purgatory is an official doctrine of the Catholic Church and one of the main differences to the Protestant faith – another strand of Christianity.
In Catholic theology, purgatory means that even someone who has repented for sins during their lifetime cannot go directly to Heaven as immediately as someone who has never sinned.
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that ghosts were spirits of the dead who needed living people to help them fulfil their obligations before they were allowed to enter Heaven.
Many medieval ghost stories feature people compelled to complete tasks on behalf of the ghosts of people trapped in limbo.
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation condemned this doctrine. Belief in purgatory is one of the significant differences between Catholics and Protestants.
Not all modern Catholics believe in purgatory themselves, but it is still an official Catholic Church doctrine.
The belief in purgatory encouraged the development of traditions, such as prayers and vigils for the dead, reflected in current Catholic funeral rites.
As you would expect, a Catholic funeral is traditionally held in a Catholic church, though it may also be held at a funeral home.
The service tends to be led by a Catholic priest, who will deliver a sermon likely to include commemorating snippets from the deceased's time on Earth.
With a Catholic service and other Christian funerals, there tend to be more rites performed. This includes a funeral mass, which symbolises the resurrection of Christ. There will also be music throughout the service.
What Type of Music Is Included in a Catholic Funeral?
Music at a Catholic funeral is restricted to Catholic funeral hymns or sacred music.
Composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Mozart, Guiseppi Verdi, Gabriel Fauré, Benjamin Britten, and Sarah Brightman have written pieces of music titled Requiem Mass.
A Catholic funeral service without Mass usually lasts 40 minutes.
A funeral with Mass often exceeds an hour. Some of the most famous burials of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Pope John Paul II, have been Catholic services.
The funeral of Antonin Scalia, a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who died in 2016, was a Catholic service.
Catholics and Cremation
Catholics believe Christ will return at the end of time, and the dead bodies will be resurrected to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
For this reason, cremation is accepted by the CatholicChurchh, but they prefer the ashes not to be scattered.
Instead, ashes should be placed in a cremation urn and either buried or kept in a mausoleum. Additionally, autopsies and organ donation are seen as an act of charity, so they are accepted.
What Happens at a Catholic Burial or Cremation?
The burial or cremation of a Catholic starts with a committal service called the Catholic Rite of Committal at a graveside, mausoleum or columbarium.
It is presided over by an ordained priest or deacon who will typically bless the site before leading the mourners in prayer, culminating in the Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer.
Catholic funerals are traditionally followed by burial, and embalming is acceptable. In 1963, Pope Paul VI decreed that Catholics can be cremated.
A Catholic's ashes should be interred in a cremation plot in a cemetery or kept in an urn in a columbarium approved by the Church.
In 2016 Pope Francis decreed that ashes should not be scattered or kept in an urn at home.
Catholics do not have a prescribed mourning period, but some families may decide to have a memorial service up to six months after the death of their loved one or on the anniversary of their death. Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals will always find creative ways to pull costs in line with your budget.
The Catholic Funeral
To its fullest, it could be said a Catholic funeral contains three stages: the Prayer Vigil, the funeral Mass, and the committal.
Usually, a Catholic funeral is held in a Catholic church or a chapel at a Catholic cemetery or assisted living facility.
Once again, a Catholic priest will preside over the services, although a deacon might take on this responsibility.
A sermon will be delivered, which will help memorialise the deceased with stories about their life.
Reception of the Body
For the Reception of the Body, also called the Prayer Vigil, the coffin is taken into the Church on the eve of the funeral, and people gather together to pray. It is traditional in many cultures, but there are good reasons why any Catholic family might want to service.
One of the benefits of having a Reception of the Body is that it gives the family their first sight of the coffin and allows them some quiet time ahead of the funeral. This helps them to prepare for the next day.
Mourners often pray the Rosary around the coffin. There may be music, readings and the sharing of memories of the person who has died.
A prayer vigil need not be in a church. It could also take place at the family home or a chapel at the funeral home.
A "Vigil" is often held the night before the funeral, which many people consider to be similar to viewing or wake, where friends and family members gather together to pray for the deceased.
This could happen in a funeral home, a church or someone's house, or even outside in a park.
Usually, a priest leads the Vigil and presides over the prayers. Since eulogies are not delivered at the funeral, the Vigil would be appropriate for providing a tribute.
The Church encourages Catholics to have a funeral Mass, also known as a Requiem Mass, because it includes Holy Communion.
It, therefore, has at its heart the commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection.
If the person who has died were a practising Catholic, they would likely have wanted a funeral Mass in their parish church.
In some parishes, funerals are celebrated at a regular weekday Mass and are part of the life of the parish.
It is common for practising Catholics to have a funeral Mass, which includes Holy Communion.
By doing this, they're commemorating Christ's death and resurrection. A Catholic Mass can be profoundly moving, as they include music, prayers, and hymns.
What to Expect at a Catholic Funeral?
Although these events may vary from funeral to funeral, most Catholic funerals follow the Church's structure. This is what to expect at a Catholic funeral during each stage.
Reception at the Church
Usually, the priest will greet all the mourners at the doors of the Church.
Before the Mass begins, the priest may sprinkle holy water over the coffin; this is often done as the casket enters the Church.
At the altar, family members receive the coffin as they place a bible or a cross over the coffin.
Mass cards, photos of the deceased and flowers are often set at a nearby table by the casket.
Reading During a Catholic Funeral
There is at least one reading from the Old or New Testament and a psalm. Usually, family members or friends read at least one reading from the Old or New Testament.
The priest reads a passage from the Gospel. After this, he delivers a sermon that reflects on the meaning of the readings.
He may also speak about the person who has died. Family or friends may compose and read bidding prayers.
After his reading, the priest often reflects on the meaning of the readings and may also talk about the person who passed. Family and friends sometimes read prayers as well.
The Eucharist at Catholic Funerals
If they're having a funeral Mass, family and friends bring bread or wine to the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer.
Holy Communion follows their offerings. After Communion, a family member or very close friend speaks in memory of the deceased.
After the Holy Communion, special prayers are recited to accompany the deceased. Usually, the priest sprinkles holy water and incenses the coffin.
A farewell hymn is often chanted while the priest sprinkles the holy water.
After the funeral Mass, mourners accompany the coffin to the graveside. At the cemetery, the priest recites special prayers.
The rite ends with the mourners reciting the Lord's Prayer and a blessing by the priest. If the body is to be cremated, the short committal service is often done in the chapel.
However, the funeral is not concluded until the ashes are given to the family to be buried.
The Cost of a Catholic Funeral
A Catholic funeral may cost a little more than a non-religious funeral.
If you have a Reception of the Body the night before, there will be an additional cost from the funeral director to transport the coffin to the Church.
You should expect to pay a fee to the parish. Some use the cost set by the Church as a guideline.
Others ask for an offering. There is usually an additional fee for an organist or other musician.
These fees will generally be included in the account prepared by the funeral director.
A small but growing trend for funerals where family and friends lay out the body and transport the coffin themselves.
It would be perfectly acceptable for you to do this for a Catholic funeral.
Catholic Funeral Etiquette
The atmosphere at a Catholic funeral is typically sombre and respectful, so people should dress accordingly.
For the Catholic Church, that is interpreted as black, semi-formal clothing. Men should wear a suit and tie or at least a sports coat and tie. Women should wear a black skirt or dress or pantsuit.
If black clothing is not available, attendees should aim for wearing the darkest semi-formal clothes they have.
It is no longer required that women wear hats, although some do. Men should not wear a hat in the Church.
Sending flowers is always appreciated, but choose an arrangement fitting for a sombre church atmosphere (no stuffed animals or balloons).
Mourners at Catholic funerals generally wear bright clothing in dark colours. A black or dark-coloured suit and tie for men is traditional, and a shining black dress or suit for women.
Mourners are expected to dress modestly, but head coverings are not required.
Some churches are increasingly open to colourful dress codes and other alternative options, but if in doubt, avoid casual clothing such as jeans, sportswear, hoodies, trainers and slogan t-shirts.
It is usually acceptable to bow your head during prayers and stay seated, but some people might kneel.
The congregation might stand during parts of the service, for example, when they are singing hymns. You do not have to do this if you are not physically able to do so. Let Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals help you select the type of funeral service that best fits your needs and your budget.
If you are not a Catholic, you do not have to participate in the procession for Holy Communion but are welcome to do so. You should not take Communion but be blessed by a priest.