What happens at a Catholic funeral

If you're attending or arranging a Catholic funeral and are looking for more information this guide can help. We'll go through the three-part structure of a Catholic funeral, explain what happens during Mass and talk about how to show up as a guest.

A traditional Catholic funeral has a distinct three-part structure to the ceremony, including the vigil, funeral liturgy and the committal. There’s a focus on praying for the person who’s died and supporting their family.

There are three parts to a Catholic funeral

  1. The vigil - where family and friends gather before the funeral

  2. The funeral liturgy - the funeral service held in a church

  3. The committal, or final commendation - the burial of the body or ashes

In a Catholic funeral, the vigil and committal are just as important as the funeral service or liturgy.

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Family and friends gather for a vigil before the service

The family of the person who’s died will usually hold a vigil on the evening before the funeral. Vigils tend to happen at:

  1. The home of the person who’s died 

  2. A Funeral home 

  3. A church

Often people share prayers and hymns regardless of the location. The priest leading the funeral service will sometimes attend to support the family.

The body of the person who’s died will likely be at a vigil

In most cases, the body is present at a vigil. Often Catholics prefer an open casket to allow loved ones to see the person who’s died a final time before burial. 

If the family cannot display the body for any reason, they will choose a closed casket.

The priest begins the service by meeting guests at the door

From there, the priest will sprinkle the coffin with holy water before leading it through the church. The pallbearers, the people who carry the coffin, will then place it on a raised platform called a catafalque. 

If they wish to, the family may lay a white cloth, or pall, over the coffin and place cards, photographs, or a bible on a table next to the coffin.

The service begins when the coffin is in place

The priest will deliver a eulogy, which is a speech that honours and remembers the life of the person who dies. The priest will usually lead everyone present in reciting different prayers at various points in the funeral, and read out specific sections of the Bible.

This usually includes readings from:

  • the Old Testament, the first part of the Bible

  • the Book of Psalms, a specific part of the Old Testament

  • the gospels, four narrative accounts of Jesus’ life from the New Testament (the second part of the Bible)

Up to 3 family members sometimes read out sections of the Bible as well, but there can be more. In some cases, the family will choose the selection of prayers or readings for the service. Or the priest may select and read prayers and hymns with the family’s blessing. 

Almost all Catholic funerals include a Mass

The readings and prayers described above form part of the Mass, the central act of worship for Catholics. 

Outside of funerals, Mass is important as it provides a regular opportunity to feel closer to God through prayer.

There are three parts to Mass.

  1. The introductory rites, which consist of three prayers: - The Opening Prayer, where the priest guides those gathered to pray in silence.- The Penitential Rite, where attendees recognise their sin and ask God for forgiveness.- The Gloria, a song sung in praise of God.

  2. The Liturgy of the Word, which includes the readings and hymns from the gospels.

  3. The Liturgy of the Eucharist, during which the priest invites everyone attending to take holy communion. This means eating a piece of holy bread or wafer and drinking communion wine. 

Catholics see the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ, and take it with a blessing from the priest. Attendees who are not Catholic can still receive the blessing without taking communion.

If the person who’s died was the only Catholic in the family, it's possible to arrange a funeral liturgy that does not include Mass. It will still be religious, but it will not feature communion or other specific prayers. 

Non-Catholics can choose whether or not to take part

Non-Catholics are usually welcome to join in with prayers, hymns and things like mass or observe them quietly.

The Rite of Committal takes place just before the burial

As guests gather at the graveside, the priest will read from scripture and recite some more specially selected prayers before burning incense and sprinkling the coffin with holy water.

The Rite of Committal ends with a reading of the Lord's Prayer, the most important Christian prayer, and a blessing. Sometimes the Committal includes a final hymn or song, but not always.

Catholics can be cremated

While it's not common, a Catholic can arrange to be cremated so long as the family does not scatter, separate or create jewellery or other mementoes with the ashes.

Catholicism teaches that the body is sacred and that death is not the end of life, so you must be kept together. For that reason, the church buries the urn which holds the ashes after a cremation. People sometimes call this an internment of ashes, which means when you put ashes in their final resting place.

When possible, the priest performs the funeral rites in the presence of the body before the crematorium cremates it. The priest can still perform the Rites of Committal as usual when they bury the ashes.

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Being a guest at a Catholic funeral

A Catholic funeral is a religious event, and it is usually taken quite seriously by the family. If you think you’re attending a traditional Catholic funeral there are things you can do to support the family.

Wear formal clothes

As Catholic funerals are typically sombre, attendees should dress in smart, mostly black clothing. This typically means wearing a suit with a white or dark shirt, a black tie, and smart shoes or a long, dark dress, skirt or pantsuit. 

It’s always best to read invites or event details carefully in case they’ve decided to break with tradition as every funeral is different.

Greet the family of the person who has died

Try and greet the family when attending the vigil and service. A simple handshake or briefly expressing your sympathy by saying something like ‘sorry for your loss’ is enough if you do not know the family well. Do use your own judgement. If lots of people are crowding the family and they look uncomfortable, you can always send a card or flowers later.

Well-wishers often send flowers 

Sending flowers to the family is standard practice. You can send them directly or to the funeral home. Flowers that are most often sent to the bereaved before a Catholic funeral include:

  • Lilies 

  • White roses

  • Chrysanthemums

  • Carnations

For the family, every part of the Catholic funeral is equally important

While it may seem the funeral has three distinct sections, they all come together to form a single experience. It allows the family to say an appropriately spiritual and religious goodbye to the person who’s died.

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