Funeral Masses by Another Name

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: I see with increasing frequency programs for funeral Masses entitled, “A Celebration of Life,” or something similar, in lieu of entitling the ritual a “Funeral Mass.” In particular, I have experienced several families who specifically request the omission of the word “funeral” in the program, usually because it seems to them too dour. Is it permissible to give the funeral rites (whether a wake, a Mass, or a committal) an alternate title in keeping with the family’s sensibilities? And can you comment on the propriety of this? — J.W., Washington, D.C.

A: Funerals always require pastoral tact and, as far as reasonable, a family’s wishes should be taken into account.

Personal requests, however, should not undermine the nature of Catholic funerals, which are to intercede for the soul of the deceased and console those who remain with the light and strength of the faith.

If a family request cannot be reasonably granted, a priest should still attempt to gently explain the reasons and if possible use them as a means of showing how the truths that lie at the heart of the Church’s rites offer a consolation that is far more objective and permanent than any passing remembrance.

A common alternative to funeral Mass is the “Mass of Christian Burial,” which is merely descriptive of what is happening. In fact, this basically is what a funeral is, as the word funeral derives from the Latin word for rope, “funis,” with which the deceased was lowered into the grave.

Perhaps some do not wish to be reminded of this reality, but the Church’s prayers do not flinch before it. The Church’s spiritual patrimony also encourages Catholics to take the reality of death serenely into account as part of a healthy spiritual development.

I can understand that, in a multicultural society in which a deceased Catholic might have friends from several or no faiths, a family might desire to include something such as “a celebration of life” on a program. This might be acceptable in certain non-liturgical circumstances such as a wake or reception in which the decreased is remembered and praised by friends and relatives. But it would not be correct in the context of the Mass.

A Catholic funeral is not an anticipatory canonization but above all a prayer of intercession for the soul of the departed. When St. John Paul II was buried, the future Pope Benedict XVI suggested in his homily that the deceased Pontiff was already looking down from us from the window of heaven. Yet at his burial the same Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prayed that John Paul II would be freed from the powers of darkness, that God in his goodness would forgive him his sins, accept his good works, receive him in the dwelling place of peace and light, and grant him the blessedness of the company of the saints.

Many dioceses have issued norms that address this issue. As an example we present some extracts from those promulgated for the Irish Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly in 2004.

In presenting them the archdiocese said:

“These guidelines will help us maintain the essential religious nature of our funeral liturgies, and encourage all of us to focus on commending our deceased to the mercy of God and on giving thanks to God for the blessings that they received in life.

“[They] will ensure that the celebration of the funeral liturgy is a dignified, prayerful and consoling experience for mourners and all who participate in the funeral ceremonies. They have been compiled to assist all those whose duty it is to make the necessary arrangements for the Christian burial of one of the faithful…. The death of a family member is a particularly sad and painful experience. Even when expected, the death of a loved one always leaves a sense of shock and loss. However, the Church’s funeral liturgy is a rich source of consolation and hope at this difficult time.

“4 Reception of the Body at the Church. This rite signifies the transition from the private expression of the personal grief of the family in the home to the more public liturgical expression of the local parish community’s prayerful support for the deceased and relatives….

“5 Funeral Mass. The Funeral Mass is the central liturgical celebration for the deceased. Relatives and friends are welcome to actively participate in the celebration of the Mass. Such active involvement in the Mass includes the reading of Scripture, reciting the prayers of the faithful and the presentation of the gifts. However, grieving relatives should not feel obliged to engage in public performance on such a sad occasion.

“Word of God… Homily. The homily, delivered by the priest or deacon, focuses on the Christian’s belief in the resurrection, thus offering hope and consolation to mourners and faithful in general. While the homilist may refer to the deceased’s efforts to live the Christian life, the homily is not a eulogy.

“Prayers of the Faithful. In the prayers of the faithful the Christian community calls upon God to bring comfort to the bereaved and to show mercy to the deceased. Family members or friends who wish to compose these prayers should consult with the celebrant of the Mass to ensure that these intercessions conform to liturgical norms.

“6 Presentation of Gifts. It is desirable that relatives or friends of the deceased present the bread and wine for the Eucharistic celebration. It is not appropriate at this time to bring forward other emblems of the deceased’s life and interests. As previously indicated (cf. No 4 above) such emblems may, if required, be brought forward at theReception of the Body at the Church, or prior to the commencement of the Funeral Mass.

“7 Music and Hymns. Appropriate music and hymns enhance the funeral liturgy and are recommended. Many parishes have choirs and organists available to participate in Funeral Masses. When choosing suitable hymns and music for the funeral liturgy relatives of the deceased should consult with the celebrant and/or parish organist and choir. This is particularly important when outside musicians or cantors are engaged to lead music and song in the funeral liturgy. Secular lyrics have no place in the Church’s sacred liturgy. On occasion, appropriate secular music, especially instrumental music, can enhance the funeral liturgy. Judgment regarding the appropriateness of such music should be made by the celebrant and/or parish organist.

“10 Address. Should a relative or friend of the deceased wish to deliver an address on the occasion of a funeral a number of options are available: The address, which is a resume of and tribute to the life and achievements of the deceased, is most appropriately delivered at the graveside following interment. The following arrangements apply where relatives wish to have an address in church; i. The address, which should be brief, may be delivered either at the end of the ceremony of Reception of the Body; prior to the Funeral Mass or at the conclusion of the Final Commendation following the Funeral Mass. ii. The sentiments expressed in an address delivered in church should be in harmony with the sacred surroundings of the house of God and the funeral liturgy. iii. Hence, the person delivering the address should discuss the matter with the celebrant in advance. iv. It is not appropriate to deliver an address during the celebration of Mass.”

These guidelines are representative of sound liturgical principles. However, each diocese would usually have its own norms so as to adapt to particular local customs.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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