Order of the Christian Funeral
1. The Vigil
The Order of Christian Funeral notes that “the vigil for the deceased is the principal rite celebrated by the Christian community in the time following death and before the funeral liturgy…. At the vigil the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence…. The assembly at the vigil calls upon the Father of mercy to receive the deceased into the kingdom of light and peace.”
The structure of the Vigil is; introductory rite, liturgy of the word, prayer of intercession and concluding rite. An opening song has been added to the rite and the singing of at least the refrain of the responsorial psalm is strongly recommended. As the Order of Christian Funeral notes “Music is integral to any Vigil, especially the Vigil for the deceased. In the difficult circumstances following death, well chosen music can touch the mourners and others present at levels of human need that words alone fail to reach.”
The Vigil rite also allows for the family to “personalize” this ceremony. Immediately after the concluding prayer and before the concluding rite, the ritual notes “A member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased.” Oftentimes the family might wish to bring into the funeral rite, a rosary, picture or hand-crafted article made by the deceased, a favorite poem or song, something representing the deceased and his/her life. This is the appropriate time and place for these “personal touches” to be presented and shared with the community. The revised rite makes provision for such remembrances at this time rather than at the Preparation of Gifts during the Eucharist at which time only the gifts to be offered in the Eucharist (the bread and wine) are to be presented.
Families, parish bereavement staff, and pastor are encouraged to plan together the funeral rites so that they may be an effective source of consolation and hope.
2. The Funeral Liturgy
The funeral liturgy is the central liturgical celebration of the Christian community for the deceased. At the funeral liturgy the community gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the paschal mystery.
Two forms for the funeral liturgy are given in the Order of Christian Funeral: “Funeral Mass” and “Funeral Liturgy Outside Mass” (in those instances when Mass cannot be celebrated although the preference is for the traditional funeral mass.)
Like the Vigil, the structure of the Funeral Liturgy is familiar; reception of the body, celebration of the liturgy of the word, celebration of the liturgy of the Eucharist, and the final commendation and farewell.
Reception of the Body
The rite begins with the reception of the body at the church. This may occur in conjunction with the funeral mass as the family and friends of the deceased bring the body from the funeral home. Or it may take place some time prior to the beginning of the mass, in which case the mass begins with the greeting and penitential rite as at the Sunday liturgy.
This rite of reception is significant in that it visibly shows the gathering of Christ’s body the Church, welcoming into its midst one of its members who now has completed his/her journey of faith. A journey begun in baptism, nurtured by the Eucharist, strengthened by the other sacraments and now fully immersed into the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The body is sprinkled with holy water in remembrance of baptism. The family of the deceased then places the funeral pall over the casket in silence. Just as the deceased’s family brought the person to the church for baptism and clothed them with their baptismal garment, so now the deceased’s family again “clothes” them with the pall which signifies that same garment as they enter eternal life.
The Order of Christian Funeral notes that any national flags or insignia of associations (Knights of Columbus, Foresters, etc.) which may have been on the casket prior to reception at the church are removed at the church entrance and may be replaced once the coffin has been taken from the church. A baptised Christian’s baptismal identity as a member of the Body of Christ, the Church, supersedes any membership in a human organization.
Celebration of the Liturgy of the Word
The selection of scripture readings particularly from the New Testament and Gospels has been expanded over the years. Also expanded is the selection of opening prayers to cover a wider range of persons and circumstances. Again the church wishes to offer every possible assistance to its members who are confronting the loss of a loved one through death. Careful planning by the family, parish bereavement staff, and priest will allow the richness of this rite to be experienced by all present.
Celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist
In both the Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Order of Christian Funeral encourages a full use of song. At a minimum, the acclamations of the Eucharistic prayer (Holy, Memorial Acclamation, Great Amen) should always be sung. In the Liturgy of the Word, the responsorial psalm (at least the refrain) and gospel acclamation should be sung. Only bread and wine are to be presented at the preparation of gifts.
The Final Commendation and Farewell
Good-byes are always moments of reflection. In this part of the funeral liturgy the gathered assembly bids farewell to one of its members and entrusts them to the care of God.
Preceding this rite, the Order of Christian Funeral does allow again for a “personalization” by a member or friend of the family to speak in remembrance of the deceased. This should not be a eulogy; it should be brief such as thanking all present for their presence and support to the family in these moments of grief.
Of special importance in this rite is the “Song of Farewell.” The Order of Christian Funeral demands that this song be true to its nature, i.e. songs are to be sung. “The song of farewell…is the climax of the rite of final commendation. It should be sung to a melody simple enough for all to sing.
During the song of farewell the body of the deceased is honored with incense as a visible reminder that during its earthly life it was a temple of God and dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
3. The Rite of Committal
The Order of Christian Funeral states that “the rite of committal, the conclusion of the funeral rites, is the final act of the community of faith in caring for the body of its deceased member. It may be celebrated at the grave, tomb or crematorium. Whenever possible, the rite of committal is to be celebrated at the site of committal…rather than at a cemetery chapel.”
Psychologically and emotionally this final act of separation is a most difficult time for the family and friends of the deceased. The full reality of death is experienced as the body of the deceased is returned to the earth from which it came and the family and friends must “let go” in the act of separating themselves from the deceased. In these difficult moments, the church once again offers its comfort and support. Viewed in the context of faith the grave is not a place of despair and hopelessness but rather, united with Christ in his own death and burial, a place of rest and peace in which the body of the believer awaits the promised resurrection on the last day.
Structurally, this rite is very brief. It consists of an invitation to prayer, recitation of a scripture verse, prayer over the place of committal, the act of committal, intercessions, Lord’s Prayer, concluding prayer, and prayer over the people and dismissal.
Order of Christian Funeral prefers the actual committal (the lowering of the body into the grave) to take place within the context of the rite with the family and friends present. Obviously this has been the practice of the church for centuries except for recent times in our own country.
Psychologists and grief counselors tell us that as difficult as it may be at the time to see the body of a loved one physically placed into the grave or tomb, such “reality therapy” is an important first step on the road to acceptance of the fact of death and the taking up of life once again without the presence of the deceased. In witnessing the burial of our dead we are under no illusion as to what has become of them or where their body has gone. Like all the other elements of the Order of Christian Funeral, in these final moments, the family and friends of the deceased do not stand alone, the church is there to offer its gift of presence and hope based on faith.