Revised Funeral Rite Changes
Practices for Vigil, Burial

Part two of three

In the new funeral rite for Catholics in the United States there are many change.  Most changes are subtle but two are more noticeable.  One concerns the vigil for the deceased, the other, the rite of burial.

One can usually spot a Catholic in the newspaper obituaries.  If the name of the church doesn't give it away, a phrase such as this will be included: friends may visit between 7 and 8:30pm.  The rosary will be recited at 7:30pm.

For generations the rosary has been an anchor of the Catholic funeral rite.  It will surprise many that the word 'rosary' does not occur in the official Order of Funerals for Catholics.  Nowhere does the rite suggest the rosary for wakes.

The omission is nothing new.  The funeral rites for the Catholic Church throughout the world were revised in the 1969 Rite of Funerals.  It notes that the first time the community gathers for prayer is usually the night before the funeral Mass at a 'vigil'.  Instead of mentioning the rosary the rite suggests a celebration of God's word the night before the burial in the home or at the church.

Even so, the custom of praying the rosary in a funeral home has prevailed.  Since 1969 many communities have substituted a Scripture service in place of the rosary.  With the publication of the new Order of Funerals for the United States this year, the use of the Scripture service is bound to become more popular.

The reason is simple.  For the first time there is a complete service of the Word available for the vigil.  The new rite suggests a service which will resemble the first part of Mass:  a greeting, a hymn, a prayer, readings from Scripture, a homily, more prayers, and a closing blessing are all parts of the vigil.

This service will frequently be held in the funeral home.  A priest, deacon, or lay person many preside.  Family or friends may proclaim the readings.  Musicians may lead singing.  Someone who knows the deceased may speak about the meaning of his or her life.

The service also includes a poignant gesture: the presider traces the sign of the cross on the forehead of the deceased.  This simple sign is borrowed from the rites of initiation into the Catholic Church.  In three rites - infant baptism, the rite of acceptance to the catechumenate, and the rite of welcoming one baptized in another communion - we trace the sign of the cross on the forehead of those who seek membership in the Catholic Church.  We claim them for the Christ by the sign of his cross.  Now as the deceased enters eternal life, we trace that same cross on the body which lived out a commitment to Christ.

The vigil service holds some advantages over the praying of the rosary.  First, the vigil enables the community to hear and reflect upon the Word of God.  It is there where one finds the heart of Catholic Faith:  the death and resurrection of Christ.  The readings will stir up faith at the moment it is most needed.

A second advantage is ecumenical.  The rosary, is unfamiliar to people outside the Catholic Church.  Since people of many faiths frequently attend this service with the family, offering the vigil service provides a form of prayer all can readily enter into and understand.

The vigil service in the funeral home is only one option for prayer that evening.  Another is to celebrate the same service in the parish church of the deceased - the same place where the funeral will be celebrated the next day.

If the vigil takes place at church, there is one addition.  The prayers which normally begin the funeral Mass begin the vigil in this case.  The community greets the casket at the door, it is sprinkled with Holy Water, and the white pall - a reminder of the white garments we wear at baptism - is placed on it.

Another option for the vigil is to celebrate Evening Prayer in place of the Word service.  Evening Prayer comes from the Common of the Dead in the Liturgy of the Hours, a collection of prayer services marking the times of the day, part of the Divine Office.

In this case, the service begins with a hymn, continues with the singing of psalms and biblical canticles, reaches its climax with a reading from Scripture, and concludes with the singing of the Magnificat and other prayers.  Once again, the texts would help the community reflect on the mystery of Christian death.

The other noticeable change in the rite concerns the burial service, or 'Rite of Committal'.  The rite suggests that the mourners remain present for the actual burial.

Actually, this has always been possible.  The publication of the new funeral rite strives to make it a local custom for Catholics in this country.

In practice, few families of any denomination remain present for the committal of the body.  This final farewell deeply moves the mourners, and some find it too strong a moment to face.

In the United States our burial customs are cosmetic.  Make up is applied to the deceased so he/she looks asleep.  The coffin resembles a bed.  A body is rarely cremated because we prefer to see it last as we saw it in life.  At the cemetery the pile of dirt is hidden under a rug of artificial grass.  The grave itself is hidden by the apparatus holding the coffin.  Often the final rites take place in the cemetery chapel, at a distance from the grave.

Death is a hard reality to face, and our customs remove it farther from our sight.  It's easier to think about death as sleep, to think about the grave as a garden.

By urging mourners to stay for the interment, the new funeral rite affirms this basic Christian belief:  death has lost the victory to Jesus Christ; risen.  The Christian can face death confidently because he/she knows life in Christ will continue.  One can say goodbye to a loved one because of the belief of meeting again.

The committal of the body to its resting place occurs before the intercessions or after the dismissal.  When mourners watch the committal before the intercessions, they remain in place for the final prayers of the rite before they leave.

The committal of the body to its resting place occurs before the intercessions or after the dismissal.  When mourners watch the committal before the intercessions, they remain in place for the final prayers of the rite before they leave.

Other ministers many take part:  a reader, someone to offer the petitions, and musicians may have roles.

Although this article has implied that the final resting place of the deceased is a grave, other options are possible.  Cremation is acceptable in the Catholic Church, as long as no anti-Christian motive is intended.  The ashes may be kept in a mausoleum, or - in special circumstances - committed to the elements or to the sea.  Burial of the body at sea is also possible.  However, burial of the body in the earth is an ancient Christian custom which will most likely remain the norm.

Besides what is new there is also something old.  Back in the old days, when someone said, 'Give them eternal rest, O Lord,' people responded, 'and may perpetual light shine upon them.'  But the 1969 Rite of Funerals requested the response 'and may your light shine on them forever.'  It never caught on.  People kept responding the way they always did.  The 1989 rite implies. 'OK, you win.  We'll bring the old formula back.'

When an infant dies, many families desire to have only the rite of committal, not the Mass or its vigil.  However, the full funeral services are available to anyone who dies in a Christian household, even the unfortunate case of a child who dies before baptism.

Part three will focus on the funeral Mass.  Rev. Paul A. Turner, S.T.D. is pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish in Kansas City, MO.  He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from San Anselmo, Rome, and is Director of Continuing Education of Clergy.

This article first appeared in THE CATHOLIC KEY in 1989, and was reprinted in THE CATHOLIC CEMETERIAN 31/2 (August 1990); 11/12

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