As one of the most influential Christian sects, the Catholic faith is steeped in tradition and symbolism. This includes Catholic funerals. If you find yourself in circumstances that necessitate attending a Catholic funeral, you should know that various traditions are likely to be upheld and on display. We've prepared a full guide on Catholic funeral etiquette to usher you through this world.
Catholic Beliefs About Death
Before we begin, it's important to understand how Catholics view death - this informs all the rest to come. As Christians, Catholic tradition dictates belief in life after death, and that the kind of lives they led while alive determine their final destination.
Purgatory isn't as common a belief in modern Catholics as it used to be. However, it still informs the traditions of most Catholic funerary rites. It's directly responsible for prayers for the dead and vigils, medieval practices that are what shaped today's most common funeral rights in Catholicism.
Prior to the Funeral
After the death of a practicing Catholic, it's common for their family to hold a prayer vigil the night before the funeral. This is sometimes referred to as a wake or the reception of the body. Wake etiquette is somewhat similar to Catholic visitation etiquette. While many of these vigils take place at a funeral home or even the home of the family, it's also not uncommon for the prayer vigil to happen at the church. A priest or deacon usually presides, though a layperson may also preside; activities are usually prayers, though many families also consider it appropriate to have tributes and eulogies read at the vigil as well.
During a Catholic Funeral
Catholic funeral services, when performed in a church, are often done in the form of a Requiem Mass. This resembles a regular Catholic Mass in that the presiding priest performs the ritual of Holy Communion, but with several important differences. The first difference is that the coffin of the deceased is received by the priest at the front door. The priest leads it into the church after sprinkling it with holy water, covers it in a special cloth called a pall, and then has it placed on a raised funerary platform called a catafalque.
The liturgy of the Mass often includes readings from the Old Testament, often read by the priest or family and friends of the deceased. There's often a psalm read as well, and the priest reads from one of the gospels and delivers a homily and eulogy as well. At this point, the priest will offer Holy Communion; afterward, there may be an additional eulogy, referred to as a Final Commendation. The coffin is then once more sprinkled with holy water before concluding the Mass. Catholic funeral mass etiquette typically calls for being more formal than a Sunday Catholic mass.
Other Details about a Catholic Funeral Service
Full Catholic funerals with a Mass typically last an hour or more. Catholic funerals where a full Mass doesn't occur are typically shorter, coming in at about 40 minutes. You'll likely hear either hymns or classical music composed by masters such as Verdi, Mozart, Bach, and others; these pieces of music are almost all specifically known as Requiem Masses.
Traditionally, Catholic funerals are followed by a burial. It's called the Catholic Rite of Committal, and it occurs at either the side of a grave or a mausoleum. An ordained priest or deacon will preside over the ceremony, blessing the site and then leading prayers; the final prayer is traditionally the Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer. While many Catholics are buried, cremation is also permitted, though typically requiring the cremains to be intended in a casket or within an urn in a mausoleum or columbarium. Catholics typically do not scatter ashes or keep them at home.
Catholic Funeral Mass Etiquette and Dress Code
When it comes to Catholic funeral visitation and mass etiquette, know that the mood will likely somber and formal. Mourners are usually encouraged to wear dark, muted colors. Black is traditional but any dark color is usually considered appropriate. A dark-colored suit and tie for men is often seen as traditional attire, but need not be so formal. Meanwhile, a black dress or suit for female mourners is also considered appropriate. Slightly more casual clothing is usually fine as well, as long as it's modest and somber. Jeans, hoodies, sportswear, printed t-shirts, and athletic shoes are typically not a good idea.
While prayers are being recited, it's perfectly acceptable to stay seated and bow your head. However, you need not cover your head, as in some religious traditions like Judaism. Catholic services do often require congregants to move from sitting to standing to kneeling and back; while as a visitor there's no need to kneel, it is considered polite to stand when others are unless not physically capable. You do not have to partake in Holy Communion if you are not Catholic. You can stand and join the procession to receive a blessing from the priest (only if you want to), but you shouldn't actually take Communion from them.
The Importance of Catholic Funeral Etiquette
As in all things, not every Catholic funeral is going to be exactly the same. The circumstances listed above should cover the basics, but there may be some differences here and there. The final wishes of the deceased are often respected as long as they don't run counter to Catholic doctrine, and this means you may find some variation in what you might expect from a traditional Catholic funeral.
No matter what, however, the majority of the information and advice here rings true. Catholic funerals are formal occasions where the life of the deceased is commemorated and mourners are offered a chance to bid farewell to their loved ones. With the Catholic belief of life after death, these events celebrate the transmigration of the deceased's soul as much as they offer succor to those left behind.