Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. May their soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Catholic Burial Tradition & Teaching
Throughout the Church’s history, Christian burial has been an integral part of Catholic life. Catholic dogmas and doctrines relating to death and resurrection have been reflected in the liturgy, devotions and customs surrounding the death and burial of the faithful. Catholic belief in death as the entrance into eternity, hope in the resurrection, recognition of the value of prayer for the deceased, reverence for the body which remains, a sense of the mystery and sacredness which surround death — all of these should be reflected in the ministry and rites that are part of the Church’s pastoral response to death, the care of the body of the deceased and the consolation of the living.
Christian belief in the sacredness of human life, here and in the world to come, must be reflected in the Christian response to death. The private and liturgical prayers, the meditation and reflection, and the ceremonies and rites connected with the funeral and committal express our participation in the great Paschal Mystery and its promise of eternal union with almighty God. The events which surround death also call for a response from the Christian community.
The General Introduction of the Order of Christian Funerals teaches that “when a member of Christ’s Body dies, the faithful are called to a ministry of consolation to those who have suffered the loss of one whom they love. Christian consolation is rooted in that hope that comes from faith in the saving death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian hope faces the reality of death and the anguish of grief but trusts confidently that the power of sin and death has been vanquished by the Risen Lord. The Church calls each member of Christ’s Body — priest, deacon, layperson — to participate in the ministry of consolation to care for the dying, to pray for the dead, to comfort those who mourn.” (OCF, 8)
When possible, those who were part of the Catholic community are buried in a Catholic cemetery. Not only is the Catholic cemetery a sacred place, a place of prayer, and a place reflecting our beliefs and traditions, it also expresses the communion of all the faithful, living and dead. It is a recognition of the belief shared by the faithful departed and the living, who commit the bodies of their deceased to this holy place.
When someone dies, a special journey begins. For the one who dies, the journey is the completion of their earthly pilgrimage and their movement to God who judges all with truth and love and has the power to grant life in its fullness. For those who remain, another kind of journey begins. It is a journey of separation and loss, a time of confrontation with death that challenges our confidence, even our faith. For the bereaved family and friends, this may be a long road. Even years later the challenge may remain.
A critical stage of this journey for the human community is the period that begins at the moment of death and ends with the burial or entombment of the deceased. In the Catholic tradition, no one makes this journey alone.
Important stations on the ritual journey of the Catholic community during this time between death and burial are:
The Vigil for the Deceased
The Vigil (Wake Service) is truly a time to laugh, cry, remember and pray. A time to rejoice in all that the person was and is. This can truly be a healing time for all those who are hurting.
The Vigil for the Deceased is the first way that the Church captures the sentiments of those who are grieving and sets them in the context of our faith. A prayer service with readings selected from Scripture to fit the circumstances of the deceased, a homily that comforts and gives hope, intercessions that speak to the faith of those gathered around the deceased, and prayers selected from the rich resources found in the Order of Christian Funerals can do a great deal to prepare people to enter into the Christian spirit of the Funeral Liturgy. The Rosary or other prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary can be part of the Vigil.
Eulogies are best given at an appropriate time during the Vigil Service (Wake). While there is a natural desire to say good things about a person who has died, we must always remember that in the context of prayer, it is the working of God’s grace in the life of the deceased for which we want to give thanks and praise. Eulogies in the context of prayer must be more than mere tributes to the goodness of the deceased. There must be a reference to what God has done for the deceased person and for us through him/her. Priests and parish bereavement ministers are available to assist families in selecting Scripture readings and music for the wake service and funeral liturgies.
Funeral Liturgy (Mass)
The Funeral Liturgy (Mass) is our great “Thank You” to God who created us, died for us, and who is calling each of us back to Himself. In this step the focus shifts slightly from emphasis on the deceased to God’s saving works though Jesus Christ. The Mass, particularly at the time of death, is truly a special moment, a holy moment, a God-moment. “At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end nor does it break the bonds forged in life.” (OCF, 4) The Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral.
Celebrating the funeral liturgy at Mass in the parish church is the normal way in which most Catholics experience the Order of Christian Funerals. The Eucharist looks forward to our participation in the heavenly banquet, where we are united with Jesus, the saints, and all those who share eternal life. Jesus said, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live forever.” (John 6:54) The Eucharist is truly the central point in a Catholic funeral. Its effectiveness is greatly enhanced when the family participates in appropriate ways: clothing the casket with the pall, selecting the Scripture readings, serving as lectors or extraordinary ministers, singing the responses and the hymns and, most especially, receiving Holy Communion.
The funeral homily is of utmost importance in the funeral liturgy. A homily may only be delivered by a priest or a deacon, as liturgical homilies are part of the sacramental rite of the Eucharist. The homily speaks of the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection and gives the deeper meaning that is found in the experience of death and dying. The homily occurs within the context of a funeral Mass that is offered for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the soul of the faithful departed.
Rite of Committal (Cemetery)
“The final commendation is a final farewell by the members of the community, an act of respect for one of their members, whom they entrust to the tender and merciful embrace of God. This act also acknowledges the reality of separation and affirms that the community and the deceased, baptized into the one Body, share the same destiny, resurrection on the last day. On that day, the one Shepherd will call each by name and gather the faithful together in the new and eternal Jerusalem.” (OCF, 146) The Rite of Committal is the final liturgy in the Order of Christian Funerals. Like the Vigil Service, the Rite of Committal makes use of Scripture, a few words of hope by the presider, intercessions and prayers.
A Catholic cemetery is a sacred place of honor and respect for those who have died. It is a memorial to all who are interred there. It is a sacred place where Catholics come to express their grief and hope in the resurrection for their loved ones who have preceded them in death. It is blessed ground, fitting for someone whose body was a temple of the Holy Spirit on earth and now awaits the resurrection from the dead.
To have a representative of the Church present at this final moment is a great source of consolation to those who will now have to continue their journey in life without their loved one. While a priest may be unable to preside at the Committal Service, a deacon or a trained bereavement minister may represent the Church at this final moment.
Canon Law (Church Law) specifically designates two places on this earth as “sacred” — places where the faithful worship (our churches), and places where the faithful are buried (our Catholic cemeteries). (Canon 1205)
When we are baptized, we are brought to a sacred place, a Catholic church, and baptized into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection – thus giving us the promise of eternal life. When one of our loved ones dies, we take them to another sacred place, a Catholic cemetery, for burial in sacred ground while they await the resurrection of the dead and the promise of eternal life.
Since death is a natural part of life, it is only fitting that the Catholic Church be present at the time of death. In the Preface of the Funeral Mass the words ‘…for your faithful people O Lord, life has changed not ended’ are prayed. Death as seen through the eyes of a Christian is not the end. It is simply a natural passageway to a changed life with God. Burial in a Catholic cemetery is a statement of continued belief in that everlasting life, even in death.
Cemeteries hold the earthly remains of our family members and friends who have shared their love, fellowship and faith with us. Although a grave in a cemetery evokes sadness, a grave in a Catholic cemetery is also a sign of hope in God and His promise of everlasting life.
In a complex and busy world, the desire to do things well, spiritually as well as sensibly, is often complicated by practical matters like time, money and knowledge. Nothing ever seems quite as easy to do as it first appears. This is as true of planning a family burial place as it is of anything else. It is probably made more complex by the fact that many people only do it once in a lifetime.
Since 1963, cremation has been an acceptable option for those of the Catholic faith. Whenever possible, however, the church always prefers the interment or entombment of the body because it gives fuller expression to our Christian faith. When cremation is chosen, the preferred sequence for the final rites is for cremation to take place after the Funeral Mass. The cremated remains would then be taken to the cemetery for committal to the ground or a crypt space called a niche. The cremated remains must always be treated with respect. They may not be divided, scattered or commingled with others. The scattering of the cremated remains or keeping the cremated remains in a home are not the reverent disposition that the church requires.
Who May be Buried in a Catholic Cemetery?
The church expects the burial of Catholics in Catholic cemeteries. To avoid breaking close family ties, non-Catholic members of Catholic families may be interred in a Catholic cemetery.
Caring for the Dead – a Corporal Works of Mercy
The Church has always held up the sanctity of the person from the moment of conception to the grave and beyond as well as every moment in between. We understand the seriousness of this work of caring for the dead when it is lined up next to the other six corporal work of mercies: Feed the Hungry; Provide Drink to the Thirsty; Shelter the Homeless; Clothe the Naked; Comfort the Sick; Visit the Imprisoned. When the last and final act of caring for a person is at their death, the Church is respecting the fullness of the person: body and soul.
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