For Catholics, death is the end of earthly life, but not the ultimate end.
The rites and traditions of Catholics, the world’s largest Christian denomination
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”.
- St Augustine of Hippo
For Catholics, death is tied to the experience of life itself. Death is the end of the earthly life, but not the ultimate end. Death is where one is called to return to God. To be away from the body is to be with God, as it is written in 2 Corinthians. Now, we’ve touched on other Abrahamic traditions, such as Islam and Judaism on our blog. Today we’re going to touch on how Catholics honor their loved ones through their funerary rites and burials.
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- Some background
- Catholic funerals
According to historians, the official beginnings of the Catholic Church as we know it started in 590 CE. During that time, Pope Gregory I consolidated various lands. He directed efforts to convert pagan European peoples to the Roman Catholic ideology. Since then, the Roman Catholic Church has become one of the largest religions on the planet. It’s certainly the largest Christian denomination, with approx. 1.2 billion followers around the world. 40% of those believers live in Latin America. That’s a lot of people.
With such a long history and wide variety, there are variations in how Catholics have funerals. So we’ll stick with some main points here - primarily the Last Rites, Wake, Funeral, and Burial.
When a Catholic person is close to dying, due to sickness or age, they are given Last Rites. The speed and location of the rites depends on the person’s ability to speak and travel. The person's standing within the Church is also considered.
For Catholics there are seven sacraments, but last rites refers to three of them: Reconciliation (penance), Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist (communion).
- Reconciliation: If the dying person is able, they should make one final sacramental confession, or reconciliation. This isn’t a requirement, but confession is an important part of Catholic life. So it should be the same in death.
- Anointing of the Sick: Traditionally, this sacrament was done for those who were in extreme danger of dying. It involves anointing someone with oil and reading from the Bible. It could’ve been done individually or part of congregations. Nowadays, the Vatican suggests anointing for anyone who is sick or in old age.
- Communion: Here, the person receiving the rites takes part in eucharist, or the body and blood of Christ. This final communion, the Viaticum, is referred to as the “last sacrament of the Christian”. By taking the communion, the dying person unites with Christ, as he will lead them on their way.
Under Catholic tradition, once someone dies, they aren’t buried immediately, in contrast to Islam and Judaism. In Mexican Catholic rituals, mourners will keep bodies in the house for up to 48 hours after death! At most the body will be kept in a simple coffin and covered with a sheet.
Instead, Catholics hold vigils called Wakes, typically held in a funeral home. That time is to honor the memory of the deceased and to console one another. As such, eulogies are often given during the Wake.
Catholic funerals are most often held during Mass. Mass is the central act of worship amongst Roman Catholics, and lead by a priest. At the funeral, friends and family gather to honor the memory of the deceased, and to give thanks to God. It’s a time for the attendees to honor the deceased’s admission into God’s love and mercy. In this way, funerals are just as much periods of worship as well as grief.
As such, Catholic funerals typically follow a sequence of events:
- Reception: the beginning of the funeral, where friends and family gather. The family is greeted and the coffin or urn is sprinkled with holy water.
- Liturgy of the Word: the family may choose from a collection of Old & New Testament scripture, Psalms and songs to incorporate.
- Liturgy of the Eucharist: the eucharist takes place similar to a regular mass, with Catholics taking communion. Those who are aren’t Catholic are able to get a blessing from the priest upon request.
- Final Commendation: a final farewell to the family and an affirmation of the community.
- Travel to the Committal: after the funeral, visitors form a procession and accompany the body to where it will be buried.
The conclusion of the funeral rite is the burial, also called the Rite of Committal. It can be used at graves, tombs, cremations and even burials at sea. The rite gives the community the chance to reflect as they commit the body to the earth. The hope is those marked of faith will be in God’s love awaiting the honor of resurrection.
The priest may also provide a prayer to bless the gravesite if that is desired. The community offers farewell prayers as the body is lowered into the ground. After the burial, families may continue to gather. But there’s no official Catholic mourning period once burial has taken place.
The Vatican does allow for cremations. This wasn’t always the case, as Catholics believe in the resurrection of the physical body. But in recent years, the Church does allow for the process. However, the remains are not to be scattered at sea or kept in an urn at a personal house. Instead, remains are to be kept somewhere sacred. This is to not trivialize the sacredness of death or the body.
For Catholics, death is not an end, but a beginning. Scripture says that life will be eternal in heaven. Catholics have a heavy emphasis on what comes after death. Catholic funerary rites are for honoring those we’ve lost, but reflecting on the community’s relationship with God.
In Mexico, children are included in discussions about death from an early age. They are not shielded from grief or the rituals. One is said to align themselves with what comes after through the rituals of honoring the dead. For Catholics, that’s returning to God’s glory.