When we lose a loved one, it is often up to us to ensure they are laid to rest in a proper and dignified way. The process can be exhaustive, and it's often easy to miss opportunities for focusing on the things that a Catholic funeral rite expresses. The first time you attended a Catholic funeral, you were probably struck by the beauty and dignity. Centuries of tradition will do that, especially in regions like the Philadelphia area where Catholics have been living for generations. These funerals express the Catholic belief in eternal life and resurrection of the body, as is appropriate.
It's an ordeal to plan a Catholic funeral for a loved one, especially if you're not emotionally prepared. Catholic funerals are, perhaps, some of the least difficult to plan, thanks to the strong framework provided by the Church. That's not to say that the family isn't involved and that there isn't hardship. You will certainly want a hand in choosing ministers, music, texts and readings, not to mention the actual burial process itself - from the type of casket to the inscription on the memorial marker. This guide is the first step in understanding what a Catholic funeral entails and what sorts of decisions you can make. This guide can also be helpful in preparing some of your own funeral plans as well — advance planning is an increasingly popular practice where you and your family can rest easy knowing everything is already taken care of.
The Catholic View of Death
Understanding how to plan a Catholic funeral service requires understanding of how Catholics view death. It's not the end of the line by any means - instead, Catholic belief involves the idea of an eternal afterlife. This core concept is what guides Catholic funerary rites in nearly all ways, and it's important that the funeral home handling the burial is in direct communication with the deceased's parish. You will find that to be the case with any of the Philadelphia Catholic Cemeteries.
The Choice Between Cremation or Burial
Contrary to common belief, there is no strict ban on cremation when it comes to Catholic funerary practices. Cremation is a valid and increasingly popular choice, as long as the option isn't exercised to express a view that runs counter to the Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body. This leads to burial remaining the more traditional approach, making it overall a more popular one than cremation. The key for those interested in cremation is that the Church still prefers the cremains to be entombed, either placed within an urn and buried in a casket, or having the urn placed within a columbarium or cremation niche.
For this reason, the choice to cremate mostly comes down to a personal preference, with two caveats:
- Timing: A traditional burial often necessitates the services occur sooner. Cremation does not tend to carry the same time constraints.
- Viewing: If you wish to have a viewing, traditional burial may be the better option. Though there is always the opportunity of holding a service with the cremation urn.
Holding a Mass or Not
Another aspect of planning a Catholic funeral involves arranging a funerary mass, often undertaken in the presence of the body of the deceased. The decision that needs to be made at this stage is whether the funeral will take place in the context of mass or not. However, this isn't an absolute requirement. There are days that the Church is prohibited from holding funeral masses, for example; other times, such as when the deceased has been separated from the church for some time, might make a funeral mass less appropriate.
In lieu of holding a funerary mass before burial, a memorial mass is often chosen. Funerals that don't involve a mass can be officiated by deacons, priests, bishops, and in some instances, lay ministers as well. In these cases, a funeral Liturgy of the Word and final commendation of the deceased takes place. These need not take place within a church; a funeral home, a cemetery chapel, or even graveside are all appropriate locations.
Viewings of the deceased, or wakes as they are commonly known, are often important parts of the funeral process. The loss of a friend or family member brings communities together, and the wake offers these communities to grieve as one, console one another, and remember the deceased in life. While sometimes a church will hold a wake itself, it's much more common to have one at the funeral home.
Wakes, which have ancient Christian origins in the practice of vigils, are almost always conducted before a funeral mass (and, obviously, before burial). The Church offers specific liturgical rites meant for a wake, which can be led by a Church minister or a lay minister, and often consist of readings, a short homily, and prayers. Music often accompanies wakes as well. Those who attend viewings often leave with a remembrance card in hand, a laminated card that has Scripture passages or holy images on one side and the details of the identity of the deceased on the other.
After the Burial
One month after the anniversary of the death of the deceased, it is customary to celebrate a mass for them. On future dates, such as the anniversary of their death or their birthdate, are also wonderful times to arrange for mass intentions for your loved one.
We hope this short guide has provided some insight into what it takes to plan a Catholic funeral, for yourself or a loved one. Remember that you can rely on the guidance of the Church as much, or as little, as you like during the planning process, as well as the experts at Philadelphia Catholic Cemeteries.