Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Funeral Traditions

November traditionally reminds us of our mortality. The month begins with All Saints and All Souls.  Since the liturgical year culminates and ends during November with the Feast of Christ the King, the last four Sunday gospels are dedicated to the topics of death, judgment, heaven and hell. We should take time to reflect on these somber but important matters.

I thought today we could reflect on some of the rites and traditions we have as Catholics concerning funerals. As you know, the body is a sacramental because it was not only baptized and incorporated into the body of Christ but it was united to the immaterial soul which was created by a unique and sovereign act of the Most Blessed Trinity. For these reasons, we treat it with the utmost care and respect.

One of the first things that loved ones are concerned about when a death occurs is what will they be buried in. Those who are clerics (Bishop, Priest, or Deacon) are buried in the liturgical vestments appropriate to their rank and order. Of course, religious are clothes in their habits and laity are appropriately clothed preferable holding a rosary or crucifix. The last piece of clothing is placed on the outside of the casket at the beginning of the funeral service called the pall.

The pall or pallium (Latin) meaning cloak is a sacred covering used at a funeral to recall the white baptismal garment of the newly baptized. We who were baptized into Christ not hope to enter into His glory. Interestingly enough, it is also used during certain religious orders’ profession ceremonies as a veil to place over the nun.

The positioning of the casket is also traditionally important. It is tied to our position during the Divine Liturgy. The deceased’s feet are positioned towards the east (oriented) which is also the tradition in cemeteries. A priest’s or bishop’s body, however, is usually placed with the head to the east instead, signifying his relative position during a liturgy.

Another worthy tradition is called the Month’s Mind.  This is a special Mass offered for the deceased about the thirtieth day after their death. This tradition was a way to end a short period of mourning and to assist in the soul’s purification and release from purgatory.

A curious tradition is that of the Passing Bell. This bell was rung when an individual was critically ill.  The superstition stated that the sound of the bell warded off or held at bay evil which was said to be lurking around a dying person. The belief was also that the evil spirit would cling to the soul passing from the body. Thus, the bell was rung to encourage prayer by the faithful for a safe passage to the Lord.

Another use of bells was the tolling of the parish bells before a parishioner’s funeral. The number of times the bell was rung would equal the age of the deceased.

Overall, the Church teaches us that there are three purposes for a funeral in CCC1648:

  1. For the deceased: the expression of an effective communion
  2. For the assembly: a participation in that communion
  3. For the community: the proclamation of eternal life

Many churches mistakenly call the funeral liturgy “The Mass of the Resurrection.” This term is reserved only for the Easter liturgy itself. The funeral liturgy used to be called a “Requiem Mass” because of the first Latin word (Requiescat) of the introit: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord…”

Lastly, there is a beautiful tradition of planning one’s own funeral liturgy. I am planning mine. God willing that I am ordained in January, I will have no choice concerning what I wear and who presides at the funeral. That would be my Bishop’s decision. Musically, I plan to have a mix of chant and praise and worship. I do have specific plans for my wake. My desire is that the wake would be held in the parish church during an extended Holy Hour. During that time, I would like the preaching to be evangelical – calling for a renewal of everyone’s Baptismal vows. Hopefully, those who are un-churched or lapsed Catholics, would be given the grace and opportunity to be reconciled and brought back or deeper into communion with Christ through His Church. Beyond that, feel free world to do what you will. I will no longer be with you on earth and hopefully, I won’t care because I will be granted a seat in heaven. On the other hand, please start praying for my sorry soul now.

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