Baptismal Symbols and Funerals

My recent description of the funeral rites for Archbishop Francis Rush has resulted in several requests for more information about the significance of the symbols used during the introductory rites of the funeral liturgy.
When the body of the deceased arrives at the door of the church for the Catholic funeral rites, the priest sprinkles the casket with holy water. If the body has been cremated, the remains are sprinkled. The water may be taken from a container of blessed water or directly from the baptismal font if it is located by the door.
For Catholics accustomed to signing themselves with holy water every time they enter the church, sprinkling the body seems perfectly natural. To others, it may seem strange. We use holy water to remind us of our baptism. We enter the building with this simple reminder of the sacrament which gave us new birth. As the deceased enters the church for the final time, we sprinkle this faithful member of the community with holy water for the same reason. At death, this gesture seems even more significant. After all, baptism begins our life in Christ. Our death brings our earthly life in Christ to its completion.
Sprinkling the casket takes place whenever the body arrives at the church. If the vigil for the deceased has taken place in the church the night before the funeral, the reception of the body with sprinkling takes place then. If the vigil was at another location, the sprinkling takes place at the beginning of the funeral Mass.
After the sprinkling, a large white cloth, the pall, may be placed over the coffin. This is done in silence. The pall has two meanings, both deriving from the New Testament. First, the pall recalls the baptismal garment. At baptism we are robed in a white garment as a sign of Christian dignity and instructed to bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven. The garment recalls Revelation 3: 4-5, which announces that those who have not fallen to sin, who have not “soiled their garments”, will walk in white in glory. The names of those clothed in white, the passage continues, will never be erased from the book of the living. The funeral pall, then, reclothes the body in baptismal white to remind us of our hope in the resurrection.
Second, the pall signifies equality. The letter of James (2: 1-9) discourages favouritism. It challenges people who form judgments based on how someone is dressed. The funeral pall clothes every deceased Christian in the same garment so that we appear as equals before our all-knowing maker and judge.
The pall may be placed on the coffin by family, friends, or the priest. Often the employees of the funeral company place the pall. Their assistance may simplify the proceedings, but it robs the family of a final tender gesture – clothing their loved one in the garment they will wear before the throne of God.
The sprinkling and the pall are two of many symbols in the funeral liturgies which recall baptism. They remind us of the gift of faith received by the faithful departed, their life in Christ and their hope of resurrection.

Elizabeth Harrington