“In the face of death, the Church confidently proclaims that God has created each person for eternal life and that Jesus, the Son of God, by His death and resurrection, has broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity.”
So begins the General Introduction for the Order of Christian Funerals, published by the Church in English in 1989 (the original Latin edition was promulgated in 1969).
The rites and prayers assembled in the Order of Christian Funerals as well as in the Pastoral Care of the Sick (which includes prayers for the dying and in the presence of the dead) are a beautiful and compassionate path of accompaniment both for the ones who are dying and for those who mourn their death.
There is spiritual power in praying with faith, for example, the Litany of Saints as death approaches or immediately following death. It can have such a calming and consoling effect on the family who may be struggling with grief, shock and denial.
There is order in the litanic repetition, which is important when experiencing the chaos of death.
There is assurance and hope in verbalizing our faith in the communion of saints, when the visual of death seems to fill our senses.
This is perhaps also why many find comfort in praying the mysteries of the rosary after a death. There is calming order in the repeated prayers, and there is reassuring hope in meditating on the mysteries of our faith.
These are important ways to pray both in preparation for death and in the immediate aftermath of loss. In some ways, the Church presumes that such ways of praying are happening, at the very least in the quiet of one’s room (as Jesus implies in Matthew 6:6).
The Rosary can be prayed individually or communally, but it is essentially a personal prayer.
The public or liturgical prayer of the Church for the deceased are provided in the Order of Christian Funerals.
Primarily, there are three rites the Church uses to accompany and console those who grieve, and to intercede for those who have died:
The liturgical law of the Roman Catholic Church presumes that for Catholics in good standing, all three of these rites will be offered for the deceased.
They offer a unique form of accompaniment and care for the body and soul of the deceased, as well as an important forum for grief and closure for the mourners.
Sometimes, a family may confuse the personal prayer of the Rosary (always an important and helpful prayer) with the public and liturgical Prayer of the Church.
They may request, for example, that the Rosary be prayed in place of the Vigil for the Deceased.
One can always pray the Rosary for the deceased, and this is a good thing to do, but the three Public Rites of the Church are only offered between death and burial, and it is fitting that the deceased (and the mourners) not be deprived of them.
There is ritual and spiritual power in praying in communion with the public liturgical rites of the Church. These are the prayers of the Body of Christ and as members of His Body, they are our prayers, too!
Finally, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of those whose earthly remains are cremated following death.
The Church is not opposed to cremation (as long as it is not chosen for reasons contrary to the faith; for example, in times past, the masons in Europe often chose cremation as an explicit rejection of belief in the bodily resurrection).
It is necessary, however, that the cremated remains be buried in the ground or interred in a mausoleum. They should not be kept in a private home or scattered.
Public burial makes it possible for the living to visit the earthly remains of the deceased to honor them and to pray for their souls. It can also be an act of faith in the Resurrection of the body and an act of respect for the earthly remains.
Sometimes, a family may struggle with the financial burden of paying for the burial in a cemetery. In such cases, the family is encouraged to discuss the matter with the local pastor so that a suitable arrangement may be reached.
Burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy, and the Church will never deprive someone of that for financial reasons.
Let us all continue to comfort one another with assurances of faith, and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace!
Fr. Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia and diocesan vicar for permanent deacons, previously served as associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship.