It’s always a little uncomfortable attending a formal event when you don’t know what to expect. If you’re going to a Catholic funeral and you’ve never been to one before, we’ll take you through what to know ahead of time. We’ll discuss each part of the Mass of Christian burial, the approximate length, and what to wear to a funeral.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Mass of Christian Burial?
- Mass of Christian Burial Order of Mass
- Planning a Mass of Christian Burial
We’ll define some unfamiliar vocabulary you may encounter while you attend the funeral and the difference between the Mass of Christian Burial and the Mass Of Resurrection.
You may have never attended a Catholic service before, but know that a Catholic funeral is similar in tone to other Christian funerals, Jewish services, and Buddhist ceremonies. The Mass will give you time to silently reflect on the life of the deceased.
What’s a Mass of Christian Burial?
The Mass of Christian Burial is part of the funeral rites for the deceased. The first rite is the wake, followed by the funeral Mass, which ends with the rite of committal.
The funeral rites are ceremonies designed to worship God. It is also a time to commend the deceased to God’s love. The deceased needs to have been a baptized member of the Catholic Church in order to receive the full funeral rites.
Difference between Mass of Christian Burial and Mass of Resurrection
In recent years, a variety of terms have been used to refer to the Mass that is part of the funeral rites. “Mass of Resurrection” is one term that has been used. Most Catholic churches ask their congregants not to use this term to describe this Mass.
A Mass of Christian Burial implies that the body will be buried either immediately following the Mass or in the days or weeks following. The Catholic Church allows for cremation but the church’s official stance is that burial is the preferred method of laying a body to rest.
When congregants are cremated, the Catholic Church prefers that the remains be buried or placed in a columbarium niche and prefers that family members not keep the remains or scatter them out at sea or on a mountaintop.
Mass of Christian Burial Order of Mass
The Mass of Christian Burial is the second of three rites. The church recommends that Catholics that all three rites are conducted promptly after the death of a loved one.
- The first rite is called a vigil or wake, and it usually takes place in a funeral home or church.
- The last rite is the Rite of Committal, which takes place at a preferably Catholic cemetery.
- The core part of the funeral celebration is the Mass of Christian Burial, and this should be held at a Catholic Church.
There are three main sections of the Mass of Christian Burial. First is the Liturgy of the Word, then the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and it concludes with the Final Commendation. Many of these words may be unfamiliar to you. Let’s take a moment to define them briefly.
Mass: The term “mass” has layers of definitions. For our purposes, we will define Mass as the service conducted at a Catholic Church.
Liturgy: This word has come to mean a formula or ritual for public worship. The Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran Churches all use liturgies during their services. One can think of liturgy as a script that is read at all Catholic masses across the world. The same words are spoken at a Mass in Phoenix as one in Boston.
Eucharist: The Eucharist is a sacrament of the Catholic Church. It is commonly referred to as communion. When the Eucharist is celebrated, the congregants are reminded of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ.
During the Last Supper, Jesus presented bread and wine to his disciples and asked them to remember him with this ritual. Catholics believe that the bread that is given during Eucharist is the body of Christ, and the wine is the blood of Christ.
Commendation: A final commendation takes place at the end of the Mass. During commendation, a final farewell is given to the deceased. The priest sprinkles the body with holy water and incense during the final commendation.
Outline of a Mass of Christian Burial
The three main parts of the Mass are also interspersed with other rites, messages, and music. Here is the basic outline for a Mass of Christian Burial. During each section, we will include what is expected of a non-Catholic attending a mass.
The mourners are welcomed to the Mass during the gathering rite. The pall, or white cloth, is placed over the casket. This cloth is a reminder of the white materials the deceased wore as he or she was baptized as an infant.
During the gathering rite, the congregation may sing a song, and then the priest will lead the gathering in prayer. Non-Catholics may sing and bow their heads in prayer, or it is also appropriate to stand silently as others participate in those activities.
Liturgy of the Word
“Word” refers to Biblical readings. No other texts are read during a Catholic funeral mass. First, words from the Old Testament are read, followed by a Psalm. A Psalm is a book of the Bible that is written in verse form. Many times a cantor, or musical leader, will read or sing the first part of the verse, and the congregation responds by reciting or singing the second part.
The Psalm is followed by a reading from the New Testament of the Bible, but the text will not be from the first four books of the New Testament.
The Gospel reading follows the New Testament Reading. This reading is from the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The congregation usually stands during the reading of the Gospel. Non-Catholics should also rise as well as a sign of respect.
The homily follows the readings. The priest's homily is a short sermon about the passages of scripture. Although there will be mention of the dead during the homily, it is not to be confused with a eulogy. A eulogy is almost entirely about the dead, but a homily speaks mainly about God.
The homily is followed with General Intercessions or prayers. The congregation prays for the deceased and the family during this time. Prayers are also offered to the Catholic Church and the rest of the world. Again, non-Catholics may bow their heads and participate in this time of prayer. They may also respond with “hear our prayer” when the rest of the congregation responds in such a matter. You may also stand silently during this section of the Mass.
Liturgy of the Eucharist
As mentioned earlier, the Liturgy of the Eucharist is another word for communion. During this section of the ceremony, the bread and wine will be brought forward, and prayers will be said. The Lord’s Prayer is recited during this time, and a non-Catholic can participate in this recitation if he or she wishes. It is worth noting that the Catholic version of this prayer may be different than the Protestant version.
As communion is distributed, non-baptized Catholics should not participate in this ceremony. Stay seated while others move past you to go to the altar to receive communion.
The Final Commendation is a closing prayer said over the body of the deceased. It may be followed by time for silent prayer and reflection and a song of farewell.
Length of mass
Although the outline of the above ceremony looks lengthy, a Mass of Christian Burial usually lasts one hour.
There are several popular Old Testament readings often chosen for a funeral mass. Isaiah 57 states, “The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.”
Psalm 23 is also very popular: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
The New Testament reading from 2 Corinthians may be read. It says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Finally, many turn to John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Secular songs are not sung or played at a Mass of Christian Burial. Popular choices include Amazing Grace; Here I Am Lord; and Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King. There are dozens or even hundreds of songs from which the family may choose.
Planning a Mass of Christian Burial
Many details go into planning a funeral. The funeral home director will walk you through part of the process, including choosing funeral clothes for the deceased or burial garments. The priest will walk you through any other decisions that need to be made.
It may be difficult to make decisions regarding your loved one’s funeral when you experience overwhelming grief. The funeral home director and priest are used to working with those who mourn the loss of a loved one. They will walk you through the process with gentleness and empathy.
- “Guidelines for Funerals and Burials in the Catholic Church.” May 2, 2012. https://rcav.org/uploadedFiles/About_Us/Guidelines_for_Funerals_and_Burials_in_the_Catholic_Church_May_2_2012.pdf
- “Preparing a Funeral Liturgy.” https://www.sacredheartlombard.org/media/1/4/Preparing%20a%20Funeral%20Liturgy%20no%20eulogy%20for%20mourners.pdf
- “Preparing for Catholic Funerals at St. Boniface Church.” February 2014. https://www.sacredheartlombard.org/media/1/4/Preparing%20a%20Funeral%20Liturgy%20no%20eulogy%20for%20mourners.pdf