'Subtle' Changes in New U.S.
Funeral Rite Examined

Part one of three

A new funeral rite for Catholics in the United States took effect Nov 2, 1989.  Its title is The Order of Christian funerals

For many Catholics, its publication comes as a surprise.  We thought the changes in the liturgy were over. Why do we need a new funeral rite?

It's true, the big changes are over.  But ever since the arrival of English at Mass, there have been many subtle changes over the years.  Prayers have been re-translated.  Rites have been revised.  We have new Eucharistic Prayers and new saints on the calendar.

Few people notice these changes, but what's important is that they happen frequently.  Prayer constantly needs to be reformed according to the language and custom of people.

So why the funeral rite?

It was time for a revision.  Actually, there will be more revised books in the years to come.  A new sacramentary is in the works.  The marriage rite and others will follow later.

What most prompts revision is translation and adaptation.  Liturgical texts are all composed in Rome in Latin for the entire church.  For use in a specific country, they are translated from Latin to the vernacular language and then adapted for the local culture.

Turning Latin into English is a major task.  Not only must words be translated accurately, but also a sense of the text must be retained.  In addition the translator must make prayers pleasing to the ear.

As a result of Vatican Council II, a large body of prayers needed translation for immediate use.  That so many texts were translated form Latin into English in a short space of time is amazing.  Now, with more time, revised texts that are even better than the original will be produced.

But, rituals need adaptation as well as translation.  Cultures differ in their local style of prayer.  This is especially true of burial customs.  In the United States situations arose that were not covered in the former Rite of Funerals.  How does one  pray with a grieving family in their home?  What prayers are appropriate for the wake?  How might the family pray before leaving the funeral home for the Church?  We have never collected prayers for these instances.

Besides, the order of the book was cumbersome.  Payers for a deceased child, for example, have been scattered around the book.

This is why the new funeral rite has evolved.  It is a welcome arrival for a church that longs to pray and to serve those who grieve the loss of one they love.

Specifically then, what is new about the new Rite?

First, the order of the book is new.  This will go unnoticed by virtually everyone except those in liturgical and grieving ministries.  Services are more complete now - the old book often referred the presider to several chapters to find the prayers for a single occasion.

A new commentary begins the book and proceeds each section.  For those familiar with liturgy it will seem wordy, but it does say what needs to be said about ministering when a Christian dies.

The book now includes the vigil service and parts of the Liturgy of the Hours for the dead. These may be used for the wake.

Several rites are also new in this book.  Calling them 'Related Rites and Prayers', in Order of Christian Funerals now includes 'Prayers after Death,' 'Gathering in the Presence of the Body', and 'Transfer of the Body to the Church or to the Place of Committal.' 

These prayer services may be celebrated by the Church's minister or a member of the family.

The 'Prayers after Death' are fitting for the minister's visit with the family.  They include readings from Scripture, a prayer for the deceased, and a blessing for the family.

'Gathering in the Presence of the Body' is a set of prayers the family and friends may recite on this occasion.  It may take place in the hospital, the home, or funeral parlor.

'Transfer of the Body to the Church or to the Place of Committal' marks the departure from the funeral home to the Church, or from the Church to the final resting place if some time elapses between the funeral Mass and the committal.  Some families may desire to take a moment of prayer at the funeral home before departing from the funeral Mass.

The new rite also acknowledges the vast number of lay ministers who care for the dead and the bereaved.  The commentary details their many duties.  Surprisingly, the General Introduction to the funeral rites, which began the old book, is found in an appendix in the newer version.  It appears that the editors of the new rite felt their own introduction was more appropriate for the order of services which follows.

Matching up the order of the old rite with that of the new is tricky, but the new rite is ordered in a much more practical way for the presider.

All this indicates how serious is the Church's ministry of burying the dead.  The American bishops have authorized a book which will give confidence to the presider, clarity to liturgical ministers, and tools for those ministering to the bereaved.  It is a welcome addition to the Catholic Church's liturgical library, and its fruit will offer peace to those in sorrow over the death of one they loved.

This article first appeared in The CATHOLIC KEY in 1989, and was reprinted in the CATHOLIC CEMETERY 31/1 (July 1990); 5-6

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