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Planning a Catholic funeral or Catholic cremation

A Catholic funeral consists of a set of funeral rites used by the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes referred to as ecclesiastical funerals. If you’re planning a Catholic funeral for yourself and a loved one, this post will answer many of your questions – including information on the Catholic Church’s beliefs about cremation.

The Catholic church service provides spiritual support for the deceased, honors their bodies, and provides a measure of hope for surviving family and friends.

Elements of a Catholic funeral

Traditionally, Catholic funerals for adults consist of three main parts: the wake (sometimes referred to as a vigil), the mass, and the burial. Catholic funerals for baptized children are different than for adults. During childrens’ funerals, the church provides a Votive Mass of the Angels.

The wake or vigil

The wake is the time when family and friends gather to pray and  honor a life, and to console one another. The wake often includes funeral cards with a Catholic image on one side and a prayer on the other side along with the name, birthdate and date of death.

The wake may last from a few hours to a couple of days and the casket is usually open, surrounded by candles. In some cases, mirrors are covered or turned toward the wall. Many mourners send flowers for the family, though often the family requests donations for a specific organization in lieu of flowers.

Visitors at the wake generally sign a visitor book, which the family uses for sending thank you cards after the funeral services. Representatives from the church often share sympathetic words with attendees, and visitors traditionally kneel beside the coffin and pray .

The mass

Generally, the day after the wake, the body moves from the place of vigil to the church or chapel. The priest greets the coffin at the door, sprinkling holy water and intoning prayers. There is a full requiem mass, and afterward the priest stands at the foot of the coffin granting absolution. The priest adds incense to the body and again sprinkles the body with holy water, which is followed by more prayers.

The burial

Some Catholic funerals in North America conclude with an earth burial, which involves burying the remains contained in a casket into the ground. Above ground entombment is provided in mausoleums, buildings designed and maintained for human remains.

After the requiem mass, the coffin travels to the cemetery or mausoleum where the body is interred and blessed by a priest. The priest says prayers and sprinkles the body with holy water, asking that the soul rest in peace. The priest then makes the sign of the cross over the body. In Catholic cemeteries, people are generally buried with their heads facing east, symbolizing that they are waiting for resurrection by Christ. Priests are traditionally buried in the opposite direction.

When the funeral concludes,  family and friends traditionally gather at the house of a nearby surviving relative to eat, drink, console one another, share memories and pray.

The history of Catholic cremation

Over time, the practice of cremation in the United States evolved from burying cremated remains to include scattering them, dividing them up amongst close friends and family members, or storing them in various places with no particularly sacred affiliation. Many who choose cremation make their final wishes clear, wanting their remains scattered over the ocean or in some other place that was meaningful to them.

In 2016, the Vatican published new guidelines for Catholics choosing cremation. The updated guidelines released just prior to All Souls Day, a day of praying for and remembering the dead.

For most of the existence of the Catholic religion, the church only allowed remains to be laid to rest via a proper burial. Catholic families only had the cremation option as an alternative to a traditional burial since 1963. 

Today, many Catholics choose cremation for a variety of reasons, some of which are accepted by the church and some of which are not. The Vatican’s latest guidelines clarify the proper way to deal with a Catholic loved one’s cremated remains.

Storing cremated remains

Due to Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body after death, the guidelines specify that cremated remains must stay intact in the same way that a body being buried would be kept. The act of separating the remains and/or scattering them in several different places goes against the church’s belief that the body is sacred and that it should be treated and stored as such.

Further, according to the newest guidelines, pieces of jewelry and other mementos are not acceptable containers for storing cremated remains of Catholics. The guidelines state specifically, “It is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.” Only in rare and conditional circumstances may a bishop allow the remains to be stored in another, non-sacred place or vessel.

The guidelines also strictly prohibit Catholics choosing cremation for reasons that don’t align with the Catholic faith. For example, if you plan to scatter remains or keep them in the family home, this goes directly against the guidelines and would be cause for the denial of a Catholic funeral.

If you have concerns regarding the affordability of traditional burial services and/or purchasing cemetery property, we recommend having a conversation with your parish priest.

This post answers the questions:

What is a Catholic funeral?

What is a Catholic cremation?

What is a Catholic funeral?

A Catholic funeral consists of a set of funeral rites used by the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes referred to as ecclesiastical funerals. Traditionally, Catholic funerals for adults consist of three main parts: the wake (sometimes referred to as a vigil), the mass, and the burial. Catholic funerals for baptized children are different than for adults. During childrens’ funerals, the church provides a Votive Mass of the Angels.

What is a Catholic cremation?

Due to Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body after death, guidelines specify that cremated remains must stay intact in the same way that a body being buried would be kept. The act of separating the remains and/or scattering them in several different places goes against the church’s belief that the body is sacred and that it should be treated and stored as such.

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