Funerals for Unbaptised Children


The Liturgical commission recently received a letter from a parish bereavement team. It congratulated the Commission on its publication Life is Changed not Ended: A workbook for preparing a Catholic funeral which the team members found very useful in their ministry.

The letter went on to express concern about the fact that the annotations printed in the book beside some of the prayers and readings made a distinction between baptised and unbaptised children. They found this distinction ‘incongruent, insensitive and hurtful’ and ‘deeply offensive to parents’.

I have experienced a similar reaction from some participants at workshops about funerals when they discover that the Order of Christian Funerals designates some prayers and readings in the same way. In fact, the classifications in Life is Changed not Ended are based on those used in the Church’s official ritual book.

The concern expressed indicates a degree of misunderstanding. Some texts are labelled ‘for a baptised child’ because they explicitly refer to the sacrament of baptism, for example, ‘as you washed N. in the waters of baptism…’. Clearly such a prayer would be quite inappropriate for use at the funeral of someone who has not been baptised. The annotations are simply a guide to the content and suitability of different texts.

Sensitivity in this area is understandable. Once infant baptism became the norm in the late fourth century, some theologians claimed that unbaptised infants went to hell. St Augustine, although basically agreeing with this strict position, said that children could not be punished through no fault of their own and were on the ‘fringe’ of hell.

From this developed the theory (it was never an official doctrine of the Church!) of ‘limbo’. Limbo was a place of happiness for those who died without baptism before reaching the age when they could make their own choice for or against God.
The concept of limbo was a way of reconciling two basic conditions of Christian faith: that God wants everyone to be saved and that baptism is the sacrament of salvation. However, the ultimate conviction of Christian faith is that God’s love is unconditional and cannot be confined by human categories.

Does this mean that infant baptism has no purpose and meaning? We believe that in baptism we become children of God, share in the salvation won by Christ and are initiated into membership of the People of God, the Church. Is to acknowledge this being exclusive and discriminatory? Has it become a case of ‘Don’t mention the war!’?

In fact, the Order of Christian Funerals is the very opposite of being judgemental. The prayers include texts for use at funerals for those who died by suicide. There was a time when they were not permitted a Catholic funeral.
The rite makes it clear that those who have died without baptism are drawn within the embrace of God’s love and mercy. That is why non-baptised children are mentioned.
Looking at the texts for use at the funeral of an unbaptised child should quickly dispel any fear that the rite is insensitive or discriminatory:
God of all consolation,
the faith of these parents in known to you.
Comfort them with the knowledge
that the child for whom they grieve
is entrusted now to your loving care.
(Prayers for the Mourners, a child who died before baptism)

Lord God, ever caring and gentle,
we commit to you love this little one
who brought joy to our lives for so short a time.
Enfold him/her in eternal life.
Help his/her parents in their pain and grief.
May they all meet one day in the joy and peace of your kingdom.
(Rite of Committal, a child who died before baptism)

Elizabeth Harrington