Comfort for the bereaved

The Order of Christian Funerals offers wide-ranging guides for texts, prayers, Eucharist planning

The time after death — as the church presents it in the Order of Christian Funerals — is a sacred procession from deathbed to the grave, a time of farewell and grief, a time of fervent prayer and strong hope in the loving-kindness of God

Since Nov. 2, 1989, American Catholic practices and prayer at the time of death have been shaped by the Order of Christian Funerals.

This collection of liturgical texts and directives, which was approved by the U.S. bishops, guides Catholics in praying for and supporting those who have lost a loved one. It also contains the liturgical norms concerning the care of the dead and the times and ways that we gather to pray for the dead and for ourselves.

Catholics in this country had been using a book called the “Rite of Funerals” since 1970. This was a translation of the 1969 Latin text that was prepared in response to the Second Vatican Council’s request that “The rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death, and should correspond more closely to the circumstances and traditions found in various regions” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 81).

Here is evidence of the “openness to cultural adaptation” that I wrote about in my Sept. 27 column. Although the pre-Vatican II funeral liturgy did express Christian hope, it also tended to concentrate on human sinfulness and the need to plead for the mercy of God.

Rites allowed to develop

The 1970 rite for the U.S. was based in part on trial liturgies in the Archdiocese of Chicago (such experimentation as part of liturgical renewal was unprecedented).

The 1989 Order of Christian Funerals builds on nearly 20 years of experience with the renewed liturgy and on contributions from the human sciences.

Some of the prayers have been composed for use in specific circumstances of death and mourning, for example, the death of a child, or a young person or an old person; death after a long illness; accidental or violent death; or death by suicide (there is nothing harsh or judgmental in these prayers).

Texts for burial of cremated remains as well as for burial of the body are provided.

The Order reminds us that the parish’s ministers and members should care for the family and friends of the deceased by visiting them and praying with them, helping to prepare the funeral rites and assisting with daily tasks.

The Order is clear that a parish’s liturgical prayer for the deceased is not the only pastoral care offered at the time of grief and mourning.

Helpful for planning

The directives in the Order of Christian Funerals should guide us through a planning process which highlights the deceased person’s sharing in the dying and rising of Jesus. This is what the church asks of all who minister to the dead and to the living in the funeral liturgy.

Liturgical music, especially our sung prayer in psalms and hymns, is a most important part of funeral liturgies, although selecting music for a particular funeral can reveal the different and sometimes conflicting expectations that the priest, director of music and family members can have.

The Order begins with prayers immediately after death and continues with prayers during the following days of wake and preparation.

There is the funeral Eucharist itself, followed by the final commendation; the journey to the place of burial or interment; and finally the committal to the grave. Thus the whole Order sees the time after death as a sacred procession from deathbed to the grave, a time of farewell and grief, a time of fervent prayer and strong hope in the loving kindness of God.

The Order of Christian Funerals, therefore, is a premier source of the church’s theology about death and everlasting life.

One of my former graduate students, Father Thomas Friedl, wrote in a course paper: “The funeral liturgy addresses all the ‘why’ questions of human existence which the death of a person confronts us with. It is probably at this moment when the funeral liturgy is able to best express the Christian vision of creation, God’s plan for salvation, the value and dignity of the human person and our hope in the person of Jesus Christ. Here in one place, all these themes of Catholic faith, expressed in theological language and liturgical symbol are brought to the fore to offer comfort to the bereaved. The funeral liturgy should be the liturgy par excellence which proclaims the Risen Christ and our share in the death and resurrection of Christ.”

This is why Franciscan Father Leonard Foley can declare that “. . . the most moving liturgy these days is experienced in well-prepared funeral Masses . . . seeing people enter into the prayers, sing, smile through their tears, and really believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus is present for them to enter into. We shouldn’t have to wait for funerals” (“Ten Reasons for Going to Mass,” Catholic Update, 1986, St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, OH 45210).

No, we shouldn’t, but maybe the desirable preparation that marks funeral Eucharists can have a happy effect on Sunday Eucharist as well.

Linked through the ages

The funeral liturgy can make us one with the earliest disciples of Jesus in their ancient cemeteries.

In antiquity, the honors paid to the dead were a main element in Roman religion. The Romans scrupulously respected the rights and rites of burial in the case of others, just as they valued their own.

Burial societies of various groups provided burial expenses for deceased members and ensured each member a decent burial, but they also provided opportunities for sharing food and drink, conversation and recreation.

To outside observers, the early Christians of each locality appeared to be a burial society like others in the Roman Empire. This is not a negative judgment, for it granted Christians freedom of worship in the cemeteries. There they could celebrate their faith that death was not the end because Jesus had been raised from the dead.

For them, as for us, the cemetery was a sacred place of comfort, faith and hope where they gathered in prayer and remembrance.

Today, the church, that society of divine praise that we belong to, by virtue of our baptism, includes the saints of all times and places and also our deceased relatives and friends who have reached God’s heavenly homeland before us.

The Order of Christian Funerals lets us anticipate the full glory to be given to the deceased and to all of us in the life to come.

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups. Reach him at the email or postal addresses listed here.