Just what constitutes a Catholic funeral can be a confusing thing, even for many Catholics. Non-Catholics may have only the faintest idea of Catholic funeral rites and what they entail, or what to expect if they attend a Catholic service. The death of a loved one can prompt one or all of several different ways the church celebrates that life, from the vigil to a Mass of intention to the actual Funeral Mass.
The vigil for the deceased is often confused with a wake, but they are not the same thing. A vigil is the first of three official rites of the church and is always performed. It is usually held on the day or evening before the Funeral Mass, in the funeral home, the home of the deceased or in the church. It can be conducted by a priest, deacon or layperson, and will consist of readings from Scripture, song, Psalms and prayers of intercession for the dead. A wake is held by friends or family, and is a time of sharing stories and remembrances of the deceased. Praying the Rosary is often part of a wake or visitation, but is not a part of the vigil.
Any Catholic in good standing may be buried by the church and given a Funeral Mass. In certain circumstances, someone who has not been a practicing Catholic can receive a Funeral Mass. A person who at the time of their death expresses a desire to become Catholic and shares the beliefs of the church can be given a Catholic funeral. An individual who has made known their intent to become Catholic may likewise be given the rites of the church. The non-Catholic spouse of a Catholic can be given a Funeral Mass if they had no other expressed preference in life. In the rare occasion a person of another Christian faith dies and has no way to receive the rites of their own church, they can be given a Catholic funeral with the approval of the local bishop. The Funeral Mass is a public act where the church intercedes for the deceased by name, and it is always held by a priest. By this intercession the church offers spiritual comfort to the soul of the deceased as well as honors the body of the deceased, and it affirms the belief shared by the Catholic faithful.
Mass of Intention for the Repose of a Soul
A non-Catholic may be invited to attend a Mass that is offered in memory of the deceased, for the benefit of the soul of the deceased. This is a normal Mass with no body present, and it may be offered at any time. It is not a public celebration of the life of the deceased, but the repose of the soul is prayed for. Since this Mass is given for a private intention, prayers for a non-Catholic could be offered, but this is in no way a funeral. A Mass offered for the soul of loved one may be conducted more than once, while the funeral Mass occurs as a singular event in the public life of the church.
Other Catholic Rites
There are some rites associated with the death of a Catholic that are connected to the funeral, both before and after, that may be somewhat familiar to non-Catholics. These include the gathering of family and friends around the body of a deceased loved one, where a priest or deacon may be present to offer prayers, and the rite of committal, which takes place as soon after the funeral Mass as possible and consists of the Lord's Prayer, brief reading from Scripture and a concluding prayer. Burial in a Catholic cemetery is restricted to Catholics, with the exception of their immediate family members.
Located in the Pacific Northwest, J.H. Varacalli began as an opinion writer and editor in 1992. He was a staff writer at a Gannett newspaper, where he covered crime and legal news. Varacalli attended Morehead State University and Shawnee State University where he majored in history and political science.