Information on Catholic funeral traditions and etiquette
Catholics believe that after death they will depart from their physical life and enter the afterlife. It is taught that a person’s soul may go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory, depending on the actions of the individual in their physical life.
Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in Australia, according to the 2011 census. Therefore it is likely that at some point you will want to attend a Catholic funeral. Funeral services for Catholics usually follow a set structure, outlined by the Church and led by a priest.
Planning a Catholic funeral
It is not uncommon for a member of the church to assist and advise the bereaved in planning the funeral, to ensure that the proper Catholic funeral rites are followed.
However, enlisting the assistance of a funeral director is advised. Many funeral directors have experience working with the Catholic Church to arrange a suitable funeral.
Catholic funeral traditions
Organ donation can be a controversial practice within Catholicism, but is now widely accepted, with many Catholics seeing the donation of organs as a final charitable act at the end of one’s life.
Traditionally, burial is preferred by the Catholic church and embalming is acceptable.
Cremation is also accepted by the Church, as long as the body is present during the funeral service. This means that cremation almost always occurs after the funeral. Although cremation has become more common, the Vatican has ruled that ashes cannot be scattered, divided up or kept at home. Instead, they should be buried, or kept in a sacred place approved by the Church.
Between the death and the funeral service, Catholics may hold a Prayer Vigil, which is similar to a viewing or wake. These occasions are attended by friends and family members, and often take place at a funeral home, church or home of the family.
At the vigil, mourners are encouraged to pray in remembrance. This gathering is usually led by a priest or a deacon, though a layperson (a non-ordained member of the church) educated in the prayers and traditions may preside over the vigil. On the family’s request, eulogies, and tributes can also be delivered at the vigil.
Catholic funeral service
What happens at a Catholic funeral depends on the type of service: funeral Mass or funeral liturgy.
A Catholic funeral Mass is celebrated by a priest and includes the Eucharistic Prayer and the giving of Holy Communion. During Holy Communion, Catholic mourners proceed to the front of the church to receive a communion wafer and sip from a chalice of wine. Other mourners are often welcomed to join the procession, but receive a blessing instead of Holy Communion. The celebration of Holy Communion is an integral part of the Catholic faith, as they believe the bread and wine is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
The other type of service, the Catholic funeral liturgy, does not include Holy Communion. This can be because mass is restricted on certain days or if a priest is not available. If a deacon is available there may still be a sermon given, but Holy Communion can only be performed by an ordained priest.
Music is played during both types of service, but it mostly restricted to worship-appropriate songs, with non-religious or popular music prohibited. Family members and close friends can request specific hymns, psalms and readings.
Catholic Rite of Committal
After the main service the Rite of Committal will take place at a graveside, mausoleum or columbarium, presided over by a priest or deacon. The priest or deacon will typically bless the site before leading the mourners in prayer, culminating with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Although Catholics do not have a prescribed mourning period, some may decide to have a memorial service up to six months after death, as well as on the anniversaries of the death.
Catholic funeral etiquette
During prayers it is usually acceptable bow your head or stay seated; although some people kneel. During certain parts of the service the congregation may stand, for example during hymns. If you are physically able, follow their lead.
For more information on religious funerals, visit our religious funerals page.