The Death of a Christian

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

The fact that November 2nd, the Commemoration of All Souls Day, falls on a Sunday this year, provides us with a perfect opportunity to recall and proclaim the central teaching of the Church about the mystery of life, death and resurrection.

It’s also an occasion for us to review the reason for and importance of Catholic funeral regulations and traditions.

It all begins, of course, with the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the mystery that serves as the model for everything we do on our earthly journey, including the final leg of that journey, the moment of our death. “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.” (Order of Christian Funerals, #1)

All Souls Day, then, is not intended to be a grief-laden expression of anguish and pain, but rather, an expression of faith – faith in Christ and His Resurrection, a truth that leads us to confident hope and peace.

The Order of Christian Funerals summarizes the ministry of the Church at the time of death: “The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites.” (#4) It is that outreach that serves as the context of the funeral rites of the Catholic Church, rites that typically have three distinct moments.

The first station of a traditional Catholic funeral is the vigil, often held in the presence of the body of the deceased. It is a time of prayer and provides family and friends with the opportunity to bid farewell and to offer consolation and support to the loved ones of the deceased.

The details of the vigil vary a great deal depending on ethnic traditions, family customs, and the circumstances surrounding the death of the individual. In times past, vigils tended to be longer, perhaps lasting several days, with many hours of “visitation.” In today’s busy society, however, vigils have become rather abbreviated, an unfortunate tendency it seems to me, since it makes it difficult for family and friends to visit and pay their respects. In any event the vigil should be a time of prayer and community support, a fitting spiritual and personal preparation for the Funeral Liturgy itself.

“The Funeral Liturgy is the central liturgical celebration of the Christian community for the deceased.” (OCF #128)

It’s important to emphasize here that “When one of its members dies, the Church encourages the celebration of the Mass.” (OCF #154) In the Word of God, in the Holy Sacrifice being offered, and in the reception of Holy Communion, the death and resurrection of Christ are made present, and the saving grace of His redemption is applied to the soul of the deceased.

The Church lists specific occasions when a Funeral Mass should be omitted, for example; on certain liturgical days when the Funeral Mass cannot be celebrated (e.g., the Easter Triduum); if a priest is not available in a reasonable amount of time; or for other serious pastoral reasons when “the pastor and the family” judge that a liturgy outside of Mass is more appropriate. (OCF #178)

One of the distressing developments surrounding Catholic funerals these days is the tendency to omit the Funeral Mass. Families sometimes eliminate the Funeral Mass – despite the clear instructions of the deceased – because they themselves are not churchgoers; or to save a little expense; or because they dislike traditional funeral customs.

Regardless of the reason, the arbitrary elimination of the Mass of Christian Burial is a serious abuse, is contrary to the liturgical practice of the Church and is often disrespectful of the deceased loved one. No prayer service, however devout, can replace the spiritual efficacy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, a truth the Christian faithful should keep in mind when planning the final rites of their loved one.

Another reminder about the Funeral Mass might be helpful, and here I refer to the preaching that takes place during Mass. The Church is very clear that: “A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.” (OCF #141) The homily is to focus on the paschal mystery of the Lord, and to instill the virtue of hope in a grieving community. While it is certainly fitting to recall the life and accomplishments of the deceased, this should never be done to the detriment of the liturgy. It’s more appropriate to offer eulogies or “words of remembrance” during the vigil, at the final committal, or at some other time when family and friends gather together.

The third liturgical element of a Catholic funeral is the Rite of Committal, “the final act of the community of faith in caring for the body of its deceased member.” (OCF #204) While there are various forms of the final committal, the meaning is clear: “In committing the body to its resting place, the community expresses the hope that the deceased now awaits the glory of the resurrection.” It is an “expression of the communion that exists between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven.” (OCF #206)

A couple of other points regarding the funeral rites come to mind. While cremation is now permitted in the Catholic Church, “the Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed.” (Code of Canon Law, 1176, #3)

Finally, while members of the Church may be buried in secular cemeteries, it is still praiseworthy for Catholics to utilize Catholic cemeteries. “The Catholic cemetery is sacred not only because of a blessing or consecration, but also by the sacred function it performs on behalf of the entire Christian community: It holds the bodies, temples of the Holy Spirit, until the Lord comes again in glory. It is sacred because it is a place where prayer and liturgy are celebrated.” (The Catholic Cemetery, #3)

I hope these reflections and reminders will be helpful, dear readers, and I pray that the Commemoration of All Souls Day will be a blessed time for the Church in the Diocese of Providence. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.