Promulgated by Bishop John D’Arcy in June 2001 and reprinted November 2005. Unless otherwise noted, material in quotation marks is from the Order of Christian Funerals.
FORT WAYNE — Death and passing over into eternal life are mysteries at the center of the Catholic Christian faith. Though popular culture at times recoils from death and denies its reality, the “Order of Christian Funerals” states: “In the face of death, the Church confidently proclaims that God has created each person for eternal life and that Jesus, the Son of God, by his death and resurrection, has broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity.”
A celebration of the Church
Christian funerals are not private observances but celebrations of the whole Church, in which “Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.” These rites are celebrated, therefore, with appropriate choices of music, readings, gestures and decorations consistent with a Catholic Christian understanding of death.
When the Order of Christian Funerals is celebrated, the faithful gather not only to remember the deceased but also to comfort one another. “The celebration of the Christian funeral brings hope and consolation to the living. While proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and witnessing to Christian hope in the resurrection, the funeral rites also recall to all who take part in them God’s mercy and judgment and meet the human need to turn always to God in times of crisis.”
The role of community
The celebration of a Christian funeral is a time for members of the community to come together. St. Paul says, “If one member suffers in the body of Christ which is the Church, all the members suffer with that member.” (1 Cor 12:26) No one is to be isolated in grief and mourning but to see the outstretched hands of fellow Christians, ready to help. For “those who are baptized into Christ and nourished at the same table of the Lord are responsible for one another.” All the baptized, then, are called to comfort those who have lost a loved one.
The role of the ministers
Pastors and their associates play a special role as “teachers of faith and ministers of comfort.” Outside of Mass, when no priest is available, a deacon may preside at the funeral rites; when no priest or deacon is available for the vigil and the Rite of Committal, a layperson presides.
In addition to those who preside at the funeral rites, laypersons may serve as readers, musicians, pallbearers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. Both ordained and lay people must exercise their ministries with reverence and great care, that they may truly bring consolation to the mourners.
“Family members should be encouraged to take an active part in these ministries, but they should not be asked to assume any role that their grief or sense of loss may make too burdensome.”
The role of the parish
The parish is a community of Christian believers, and it is an organization with resources made available in the ministry of consolation. Parish members, therefore, should see each funeral as a parish celebration, not a gathering of strangers. The parish and its members should assist the mourners in their need and in preparing the funeral rites. Priests, musicians or other pastoral ministers meet with the family to prepare the funeral rites and to offer prayer and comfort.
The parish always celebrates the liturgy with reverence and joy, filled with the spirit of Christian hope. Such liturgical celebrations are a model for the celebration of the funeral rites.
Celebration of the liturgy: general principles
“A careful selection and use of readings from Scripture from the funeral rites will provide the family and the community with an opportunity to hear God speak to them in their needs, sorrows, fears, and hopes,” says the OCF. The readings are most often chosen from the lectionary. Non-biblical readings may not replace the biblical readings. Well-prepared readers and the deacon proclaim the readings. “The presiding minister proclaims the readings only when there are not assisting ministers present.”
The psalms give poetic voice to suffering and pain, hope and trust. They are the words that Jesus Himself used in prayer during His life on earth. The psalms provided for the funeral rites are eloquent communal prayers when sung between the readings, during the processions, during the vigil for the deceased, etc. The beauty of their musical settings enhances the prayerfulness of the psalms. “Since the psalms are songs, whenever possible, they should be sung.”
“A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings at the vigil service, but there is never a eulogy,” according to the OCF.
Music and singing help bind mourners together as they walk. “For processions, ministers of music should give preference to settings of psalms and songs that are responsorial or in a litany style and that allow the people to respond to the verses with an invariable refrain.”
In texts chosen from the ritual to conform to the circumstances of death and the needs of the mourners, “the presiding minister addresses God on behalf of the deceased and the mourners in the name of the entire Church.” Responding to the word of God proclaimed and preached, the assembly prays prayers of intercession at the vigil and the funeral liturgy for the deceased and all the dead, for the mourners and the needs of the whole world. Models for intercession in the rites may be adapted according to pastoral needs.
In songs chosen with a Christian understanding of death in mind, human hearts are given a voice. In some pastoral settings, there has been increasing confusion about the appropriate types of music for funerals. The tendency to secularize the rites must be countered by prayerful reflection when choosing music for all parish liturgies and by sensitive guidance in the preparation of the funeral rites with the mourners. There are three elements to consider in choosing music for a Christian funeral: They are the liturgical judgment, the musical judgement and the pastoral judgment.
“Prayerful silence is an element important to the celebration of the funeral rites. Intervals of silence should be observed, for example, after each reading, after Communion and during the final commendation and farewell, to permit the assembly to reflect upon the word of God and the meaning of the celebration.”
Symbols give concrete witness to faith
The Easter candle “…reminds the faithful of Christ’s undying presence among them, of his victory over sin and death, and of their share in that victory by virtue of their initiation,” according to the OCF.
Holy water “…reminds the assembly of the saving waters of baptism.”
Incense … is “a sign of honor to the body of the deceased…a sign of the community’s prayers for the deceased rising to the throne of God and a sign of farewell.”
Other symbols include the pall, which may be placed on the coffin as a sign of the baptismal garment and the equality of all Christians. A cross may be placed on the coffin as a reminder of Jesus’ suffering and the victory of his resurrection. A Bible may be placed on the coffin as a reminder that the word of God is present to us throughout our lives. Fresh flowers may enhance the setting. But “only Christian symbols may rest on or be placed near the coffin during the funeral liturgy. Any other symbols, for example, national flags or flags or insignia of associations, have no place in the funeral liturgy.”
The liturgical color is another symbol. For all funeral rites, vestments may be white, violet or black.
During the final commendation, there will be an invitation to prayerful silence, followed by a song of farewell. This is the climax of the rite. It is a song for all, either a responsorial song led by the cantor or choir, or a hymn that allows the assembly to take its leave of the deceased. This is not the time for a solo.
Procession to the place of committal
As the procession leaves the church, the choir or cantor may chant the traditional “In Paradisum” in English or Latin or both. The choir or cantor may sing another appropriate sacred song, or instrumental music may accompany the procession. A congregation hymn may be sung if mourners have provided a worship aid. This is not the time for a congregational hymn from the hymnal since all are in the procession. Secular music is forbidden at this time.
Rite of Committal
As the procession approaches the grave, the cantor or choir may sing the “In Paradisum” or other appropriate song.
The song will be followed by an invitation Scripture verse, prayer over the place of committal, committal of the deceased, intercession, the Lord’s Prayer, concluding prayer and a prayer over the people. Another song may conclude the rite.
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.