More About Funerals - 6th September 2015

The rites for celebrating a Catholic funeral are contained in the Order of Christian Funerals which was published in Latin in 1969.  After a process of re-revision, translation and approval, this official ritual book was issued for use in Australia in 1990.

Three elements were emphasised in the new rites:  the importance of the collaboration of the family, the presider and various ministers in their celebration; the necessity of adapting the rites to local culture and the particular circumstances of the deceased and the bereaved; the use of three progressive rites reflecting the various stages of the grieving process.

The ritual book is called the Order of Christian Funerals 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.

The public rituals that constitute the funeral rite are 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.  Many of the personal things that are added on to the public funeral liturgy belong at the vigil.

The Vigil is intended to be celebrated soon after death has occurred.  It is an opportunity for family and friends to come together to express shock and sorrow and to offer condolences.  The structure of the Vigil is simple and adaptable.  It allows mourners to be consoled by the word of God, to pray together and to share memories.  It might be held in a home, church or chapel and in the presence of the body or not.

The Funeral Liturgy comes a few days after death when the initial shock of loss has subsided a little.  It is the public ceremony which acquaintances, colleagues and more distant family will attend along with the immediate family and close friends. The Funeral Liturgy has a formal structure with a set pattern of readings, homily, prayers, symbols and gestures.  It may include the celebration of Eucharist depending on family and other circumstances.

The Committal is the last of the church’s rituals for marking the death of one of its members.  It is an important step in the process of “closure” as the bodily remains of the deceased are committed to the earth and his/her soul to God’s loving mercy.

Problems arise when, as often happens, the three rites are telescoped into one for economic, social or personal reasons. The Funeral Liturgy cannot fulfil successfully the roles of the Vigil and Committal as well as its own.  It becomes overloaded, overlong and loses its focus.  Abbreviating the rituals of grieving can limit, or even hamper, the process of grieving.


Elizabeth Harrington