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Death, whether expected or unexpected, brings grief and disorientation. The death of a Christian, however, calls the faith community to proclaim in hope and trust that, because of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, life is changed, not ended.
The rites for celebrating a Catholic funeral are contained in the Order of Christian Funerals issued in 1990. The word Order is used deliberately here because it consists of not one rite but a sequence of rites to be used from the moment of death to the final laying to rest. This ritual process allows time for grieving, with each rite taking us a step further along a journey of prayer and faith. Having a serried of rituals to mark stages along this journey also means that no one rite is expected to do everything that must be done at the time of death.
There public rituals constitute the funeral rite: the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Liturgy and the Rite of Committal. The three rites each have a different purpose. The vigil, as the name suggests, is a time for keeping watch. At the funeral liturgy we give thanks for Christ’s victory over sin and death and for the life of the deceased. The committal is an intense and final act of farewell, commendation and laying to rest.
Vigils are not very common in Australia, which is a pity. So many of the personal things that are added on to the public funeral liturgy belong at the vigil.
There are many reasons for recommending the holding of a vigil service. The vigil enables the grieving process to begin by giving permission to the bereaved to dwell for a time in death. It will often be the first opportunity for friends, neighbours and members of the parish to gather with the family of the deceased to share their concern, and to keep watch with them in prayer.
The vigil allows more private expressions of grief than the funeral liturgy which is a public church event. Members of other Christian churches and non-church-goers will find the format of the vigil more accessible than the funeral Mass or the praying of the rosary which is often substituted for the Vigil service.
The vigil may be celebrated at the chapel of the funeral director or held in the church the night before the funeral. The liturgy can be led by a priest, pastoral worker, parish minister, family members or friend.
The reading of scripture is an important part of the vigil. The word of God allows us to see human suffering and death in the light of Jesus’ suffering and death. In the context of scripture readings and prayers the mourners may share memories and tell stories about their association with the deceased. It is also the best time for displaying personal symbols of the activities and groups in which the person participated, for playing favourite songs and for viewing the body.
By keeping vigil with the deceased, we answer the call to “Stay here and keep watch with me. Watch and pray”.