The Three Stations of the Rite
When a member of the faithful has died the Church identifies three stations, or time periods, for the celebration of the rite of Christian burial:
I. The Vigil Service
The Vigil for the deceased, commonly known as the Wake, is the initial rite celebrated by the Christian community at the time following death and before the funeral liturgy and the rite of committal.
The Vigil usually takes place in a funeral home. It may also take place in the family home or in the parish church, as local custom dictates.
The celebration of the Vigil is the time for the Christian community to offer both prayer and consolation to the members of the bereaved family; to read and reflect on the Word of God; to call upon our God of Mercy through intercessory prayer; and to provide an opportunity for family and friends to recall the memory of their loved one. Other prayers, such as the Rosary, are also encouraged since they help us to reflect upon the Paschal Mystery and so lead us to a greater sense of hope at this time of grief.
II. The Mass of Christian Burial
For Catholics the celebration of the Mass is both the source and the summit of our faith. Hence, when we celebrate the Mass at the time of death it is seen as the fullest expression of our faith in God’s abundant mercy, our hope in the resurrection of the dead, and the love that God has for us, which is not extinguished even by death.
As an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ we actively participate in the Funeral Mass. Family members may choose the Scripture reading for the Mass, cover the casket with the pall, place Christian symbols on the casket (crucifix, bible), present the bread and wine at the preparation rite, and help select hymns for the community to sing.
Members of the parish community also participate in the funeral liturgy and join with the bereaved family in the celebration of the funeral rites by proclaiming the Word, leading the faithful in song, serving at the altar and if needed, helping with the distribution of communion.
A priest or deacon preaches at the Funeral Mass. By preaching on Jesus Christ, who conquered death by His victory on the cross, our faith offers consolation to the family in their loss and challenges the community to live more faithful lives.
A eulogy differs from a homily and consists of a reflection on the life of the deceased and how this person touched the lives of others. Sharing memories with Christian charity, good discretion, and warm humor are appropriate elements for a eulogy. Eulogies are encouraged to be shared at the Vigil. However, if the parish priest agrees, a family member or friend may share one brief written eulogy not more than five minutes after the communion rite at Mass.
III. The Rite of Committal
The Rite of Committal is celebrated at the place of burial. In the committal of the body to its place of rest, we express our hope that the deceased will experience the glory of the resurrection. The committal must always be celebrated immediately following the funeral, unless a good pastoral reason dictates otherwise, such as travel to a distant cemetery. In the case of cremation, the cremated remains of the deceased must always be immediately interred in a consecrated burial site.
What We Believe as Catholics
If you have ever wondered why Catholics have certain rituals and practices at the time of death, then you are not alone. Our faith in the Paschal Mystery (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) reveals itself through the dying and death of each Christian. The following points are designed to invite reflection upon the meaning of what we do and believe at the time of a Christian’s death. We also hope that this information will guide you to a better understanding and appreciation of our beliefs and practices.
In facing death, we are reminded that God has created each person for eternal life. We celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a person’s life, which has now been returned to the Author of Life. At the death of a Christian, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased. We are confident in the conviction that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds of family, friendship and community that are forged in life.
The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of his or her sins. The celebration of the Christian funeral brings hope and consolation to the living.
In the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Church celebrates Christ’s Passover from death to life and our participation in this great mystery. The faith of all the baptized is renewed and nourished in this celebration. The intimate connection between the baptism of the Christian into the death and resurrection of Christ and the Eucharistic celebration is one of the main reasons for offering the Mass for the deceased.
In summary, we believe that in celebrating the funeral rites, we affirm and express the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints. Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth and benefit from their prayers and intercession. In the gathering of the community of believers with the community of saints in heaven, we offer our prayers through the person of Jesus Christ in the greatest prayer of the Church, which is the Eucharist.