The Roman Catholic church is steeped in ritual. As a result, there are "right" ways to do things that involve Catholic religious rites, and the faithful are expected to follow those rituals closely. This extends to Catholic funeral rites that consist of three specific steps:
- The Vigil, which always happens first
- The Liturgy, which occurs during a funeral Mass
- The Rite of Committal, which happens at the graveside
Must a Catholic Have a Funeral?
The Catholic faith ministers to the immortal souls of the faithful. Catholic teachings focus on the ideas of salvation and eternal life through the worship of God in the form of Jesus, and therefore this faith is supremely concerned with the disposition of the immortal soul after death. In this context, it makes absolute sense that any member of the faithful would want to have a Catholic funeral after they die. This makes it a requirement that Catholics must have a funeral. However, the Catholic "funeral" is defined entirely within the context of the Vigil, the Liturgy, and the Rite of Committal. This means that there are circumstances where a full Catholic funeral can be performed that does not include a traditional Mass. This is uncommon, as most simply assume that the funeral Mass is part of the process, but the truth is that there are plenty of times when a funeral Mass may be impossible or inappropriate such as Holy Week. In short, it is required that Catholics must have a funeral, but it is not required that Catholics must have a traditional funeral mass.
How Does a Catholic Funeral Without Mass Work?
The Mass is just one component of a traditional Catholic funeral, and while it is traditional, it's not a requirement. So what does a Catholic funeral without Mass look like?
In many instances, it's nearly indistinguishable, as it begins as any other Catholic funeral would: with a Vigil. Similar to a viewing or a wake, a Vigil is notable because it is also accompanied by specific Catholic prayers. Vigils are also flexible in that they can occur in a church gathering area, in a funeral home, or even in the home of the deceased or their next of kin.
Next, in place of an actual funeral Mass, the Liturgy is read. This can likewise take place within a church, but it can also be done in a funeral home, a private residence, or even the chapel of a cemetery. Family and friends still gather and celebrate the Liturgy, which consists of a priest reading from Scripture and commending the spirit of the deceased to God. What is usually not present, however, is the Rite of Communion, which is part of every Catholic Mass.
Rite of Committal
Finally, after the Liturgy is concluded, the Rite of Committal takes place. This is much more stringent, as it must occur at the site where the body of the deceased is to be interred. As a result, this almost never takes place within a church unless that church also has a crypt or columbarium on site. After the Rite of Committal is concluded, any other ceremonies, such as military honors or cultural or social rites, are also often also performed at this time.
Other Options for a Catholic Funeral Service Without Mass
While it's quite possible to have a Catholic funeral without Mass, it's also possible to have a Mass associated with the deceased after the funeral rites have been concluded. This is known as a memorial Mass, and what occurs during this type of Mass is almost identical to what would occur during a funeral Mass. The only difference is that at a memorial Mass, the remains of the deceased are not present. Such Masses usually occur after the burial or interment but can also happen in cases when the body cannot be present for any other reason.
Although, you can hold a Catholic funeral service without Mass at all. Sometimes a secular memorial service is held at a funeral home or elsewhere, separate from the Vigil and with the Liturgy being performed in a cemetery chapel just prior to the Rite of Committal. A secular memorial is often chosen, as this provides the opportunity to have family and friends eulogize the deceased, since Catholic funeral rites often frown upon or even outright forbid secular eulogies from being included in a religious rite.
Other Things You Should Know about Catholic Funerals
There is any number of reasons why a Catholic funeral might not include a Mass. Perhaps it's impossible due to medical concerns such as the COVID-19 pandemic making it too dangerous for large gatherings. Or maybe the deceased requested specifically to not have a funeral Mass before their interment but instead have a memorial Mass afterward. Whatever the reason may be, a Catholic funeral service without Mass is not necessarily an issue.
However, while it's not a must for a Catholic to have a funeral Mass, the standard Catholic funeral does indeed incorporate this into the process. It is an absolute requirement for a member of the faithful to have a Catholic funeral in some form, as this often coincides with their wishes. Whether the Mass is included in that is entirely optional. The important components, which are the Vigil, the Liturgy, and the Rite of Committal, are what makes up a Catholic funeral - not the Mass itself.
If you need to find a Catholic cemetery near you, please consult our list of Philadelphia Archdiocese cemeteries.
If you are interested in the idea of planning your burial and funeral in advance, to save your family both money and the additional stress of trying to determine what you would have wanted, learn more about advance planning benefits now. You can select whether you would like your Mass before or after interment, what you would like your memorial marker inscription to be, and any other details that help define your legacy and tell your story.