What happens at a Catholic funeral?

What happens at a Catholic funeral?

In its fullest form there are three main parts to a Catholic funeral. Our step-by-step guide explores what you need to know about Catholic funerals.

The Catholic funeral

In its fullest form there are three main stages to a Catholic funeral:

  1. The Reception of the Body or Prayer Vigil, usually the evening before the funeral. This is popular, but optional.
  2. A funeral Mass or a funeral service without Mass.
  3. The committal which takes place at the cemetery or crematorium.

Not every Catholic funeral follows this pattern but it will incorporate elements for each of the three stages.

Reception of the body

For the Reception of the Body, also called the Prayer Vigil, the coffin is taken into the church on the eve of the funeral and people gather together to pray. It is traditional in many cultures but there are good reasons why any Catholic family might want to have the service.

Fr Tim Menezes of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, says: “One of the benefits of having a Reception of the Body is that it gives the family their first sight of the coffin and allows them some quiet time with it ahead of the funeral. This helps them to prepare for the next day.”

Mourners often pray the Rosary around the coffin. There may be music, readings and the sharing of memories of the person who has died.

A prayer vigil need not be in a church. It could also take place  at the family home or a chapel at the funeral home.

The Church funeral – with or without Mass

The Church encourages Catholics to have a funeral Mass, also known as a Requiem Mass because it includes Holy Communion. It therefore has at its heart the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection.

If the person who has died was a practising Catholic, it is likely they would have wanted a funeral Mass in their parish church. In some parishes, funerals are celebrated at a regular weekday Mass and are part of the life of the parish.

The consolation of a Catholic funeral

Even if you are distant from the Church, a funeral Mass can be very consoling. Fr Tim Menezes has found that those who have never been to a Mass are often deeply moved by it.

You may, nevertheless, prefer a funeral without Mass at the church especially if very few Catholics are likely to attend. The proper name for this service is a ‘Funeral Outside Mass’ and there is usually no Holy Communion. Apart from this, the service is similar to a Requiem Mass.

Music at Catholic funerals

There are plenty of opportunities for hymns and church music at a Catholic funeral.  It is a good idea to choose hymns that everyone will know. Parish musicians and/or the organist should be able to help you.

Main parts of a Catholic funeral in detail

This section of our guide to Catholic funerals and cremations describes in greater detail what to expect and what happens at each stage.

Reception at the Church

If the body has not been received into the church the night before, the priest greets mourners at the door of the church and sprinkles the coffin with holy water. He then walks ahead of the coffin into the church. Bearers of the coffin may include family and friends.

At the altar, other family members may place a white cover called a pall over the coffin. They may also put on the coffin a cross and/or Bible. Mass cards and a photo of the dead person may be placed on a table near the coffin.

Readings at a Catholic funeral

There is at least one reading from the Old or New Testament and a psalm. These may be read by family or friends.  The priest reads a passage from the Gospel. After this he delivers a homily that reflects on the meaning of the readings. He may also speak about the person who has died.  Family or friends may compose and read bidding prayers.

The Eucharist

If it is a funeral Mass, family or friends may bring the bread or wine to the altar ahead of the Eucharistic Prayer. Holy Communion is then offered.

After Communion, a family member or close friend may speak briefly in memory of the person who has died.

Final Commendation

Special prayers accompany the leave-taking of the person who has died. The priest sprinkles the coffin with holy water and incenses it. There is a song of farewell, usually a hymn.

The Committal

If the person is to be buried at the cemetery, mourners accompany the coffin to the graveside for the Rite of Committal. There, the priest reads a verse of scripture and says special prayers.  The rite ends with those gathered reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the priest delivering a blessing. The rite may end with a hymn or song.

Read more about the Rite of Committal at a cemetery.

If a body is to be cremated, the coffin is taken to the crematorium where there is a short service in the chapel. However, the funeral is not concluded until some time later when the ashes are given to the family and they can be buried. There is a Catholic liturgy to accompany the burial of ashes available here:

A funeral service at the cemetery or crematorium

Rather than a church funeral, you may prefer a simple service at the cemetery or crematorium chapel. The structure is similar but this service is shorter usually taking around 20 minutes.

If you are having music, more than one reading or someone sharing memories of the dead person, you may consider booking a double time slot at the cemetery or crematorium.  

The cost of a Catholic funeral

A Catholic funeral may cost a little more than a non-religious funeral. If you have a Reception of the Body the night before, there will be an additional cost from the funeral director to transport the coffin to the church.

You should expect to pay a fee to the parish. Some use the fee, set by the Church of England, as a guideline. Others ask for an offering.  There is usually an additional fee for an organist or other musician.  These fees will generally be included in the account prepared by the funeral director .

There is a small but growing trend for funerals where family and friends lay out the body and transport the coffin themselves. It would be perfectly acceptable for you to do this for a Catholic funeral.

Reception after a Catholic funeral

Funerals are emotionally draining and most people will welcome the opportunity to relax and reminisce informally at a reception or wake. You can have a reception in your own home or in a pub, restaurant or hotel.

The Archdiocese of Westminster says this about the reception:

“Often this will be the better place for the display of photos and the use of popular music that was particularly liked by the person who has died, or is associated with them by others. These things can encourage conversation and the sharing of personal memories of the one who has died, in ways that are especially helpful to the bereaved, to family and friends.”

Catholic funeral planning checklist

If you choose to opt for a Catholic funeral we have written a very simple checklist to help you plan ahead.

The Art of Dying Well