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Another Look at the Order of Christian Funerals

Funeral rites carefully observed counter the prevailing culture

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The Order of Christian Funerals (OCF), as with many of the revised ritual books now in use since the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, replaced the previous ritual books with little attention to the depth of liturgical theology, engagement of the tradition and pastoral possibilities. Perhaps it is time to take another look at the Order of Christian Funerals to check its contents for such depth and to promote an authentic use of the order. More importantly, it is time to see how the funeral rites, when carefully observed, counter the prevailing culture, which sees the burial of a Christian more as an efficient conclusion to earthly life rather than a paschal procession into everlasting life. It is always a great help to read again and reflect upon the general introduction to the ritual. Here are some points to consider for a fresh look.

The Current Order of Christian Funerals

The ritual book that we use for funerals in the United States, the Order of Christian Funerals (1989), is a second English edition and translation of the Latin edition. The Latin edition published by the Church in 1969, in its structure and content, was a direct response to the proposal found in the 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

“The rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death, and should correspond more closely to the circumstances and traditions found in various regions. This holds good also for the liturgical color to be used” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 81).

The Latin edition of the OCF carefully brings forward the Church’s expansive tradition surrounding the burial of the dead. Significantly, this edition organizes the burial of the dead around the three stations, or principal moments, of the vigil, the Mass and the committal, with a flexibility for differing circumstances.

It also gives a new structure to the funeral Mass with rites to receive the body and the final commendation, which were formerly distinct and many times a matter of local custom. And, most importantly, every aspect of the reformed ritual book, especially in the Lectionary texts and prayers, illustrates the victory of Christ over sin and death and the promised share in his resurrection.

Our English ritual book, the Order of Christian Funerals, translates all of this in its presentation of the burial rites, the texts and additional rites for use in the United States. The pastoral goal is to celebrate these rites so as to manifest the faith of the Church for the deceased and mourners that clearly announces with the death of a Christian that “life is changed not ended” (Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead).

The Role of the Church: Ordained and Baptized

In our country, funerals continue to take place apart from the larger parish community. Oftentimes, those who gather for the Sunday Eucharist are unaware that a funeral took place for one of their members or someone else during the past week or will in the upcoming days. This isolation is more and more the case today, and for a great number of contemporary factors.

Nonetheless, the OCF gives significant emphasis to the role of the priest and the community in the burial of the dead, which is broader than the funeral Mass. “The Church calls each member of Christ’s body — priest, deacon, layperson — to participate in the ministry of consolation: to care for the dying, to pray for the dead, to comfort those who mourn” (OCF, No. 8).

The priest has many opportunities all throughout the liturgical year to call the community to be mindful of the sick and the dying, to participate in the funeral rites of the deceased and to pray for the dead. This mindfulness must be translated into pastoral action with formation of members of the community to be present to mourners, to assist with funeral planning and to follow up with family and friends of the deceased after the burial.

As the pastor animates the faithful to carry out their proper role of consolation, he is not replaced but assisted. So, his own engagement and visits with the family and friends of the deceased before and after the funeral rites is irreplaceable, as he does so as the shepherding Christ in the community. One practical consideration is to schedule the funeral rites so that people can actually attend.

Today, so many who assemble for a Christian funeral are estranged from the Christian faith the funeral rites celebrate. Additionally, those who assemble, even among family members, are frequently estranged from one another. The priest carries the additional work of ministering in these situations as a reconciler by giving an invitation to have confidence in the word of Jesus about death, as well as the promise of eternal life and inviting people to come together in this same faith. Sometimes, the Sacrament of Penance becomes a part of the unfolding of the funeral rites.

The Principal Rites of the Order of Christian Funerals

The current ritual book presents the traditional order of the burial of a Christian with its three stations — the vigil, the funeral liturgy and the Rite of Committal. Over the centuries these three stations developed in their own unique forms but with a necessary theological and liturgical focus that continues.

The vigil, whether it takes place in the family home or in a sacred place, offers the Christian community and the family the occasion to keep watch in prayer for the mercy of God to be shown to the deceased and to be strengthened in Christ by one another (cf. OCF, No. 56). The funeral liturgy, especially when it is the Sacrifice of the Mass, the central liturgical celebration of the funeral rites, unites the deceased to the very death and resurrection of Christ, which holds the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the personal victory over death (No. 129).

The rite of committal speaks the final word of hope that those who have died await the assured glory of the resurrection (cf. OCF, No. 206). Unfortunately today, the three stations — even with all of the ritual possibilities of associating them with the funeral liturgy — do not take place.

In an increasingly efficient approach to the burial of a Christian, the only station, if it takes place at all, is the funeral liturgy. The vigil, sadly, is most frequently omitted. In those instances when the rites can be carried out by a deacon or layperson when a priest is not available, then this should be the case so as to provide for all of the funeral rites.

The vigil has two forms, depending on where it takes place. If it takes place outside of a sacred place, the first form is used. If it takes place in the church, then it also includes the reception of the body. For both forms, the structure and content are outlined in the ritual book.

These are liturgical celebrations and so should be identified as such by the vesture of the sacred and liturgical ministers, the use of liturgical music, the fitting proclamation of the word of God and the participation of those assembled. The vigil that takes place in church with the reception of the body, begins — as when the reception is part of the funeral liturgy — at the entrance to the church. The symbolism is clear here. The sprinkling with holy water is the reminder of the gateway Sacrament of Baptism to membership in the Church. Likewise the cross traced on the forehead of the deceased at the conclusion of the vigil reminds us of the very first similar signing at baptism and then throughout the Christian life (cf. Nos. 81, 96).

It is more and more common for a wake or visitation to take place in church prior to the funeral liturgy, and yet most often there is no vigil as part of it. This is a poor development in our contemporary funeral practices and a serious departure from our tradition not foreseen in the Order of Christian Funerals.

Every effort should be made to recover the vigil as the norm. As a side note, if the wake or visitation does take place in church, then, if at all possible, the placement of the body should be distinct from its placement for the funeral liturgy.

The funeral liturgy also has two forms: the funeral Mass and the funeral outside of Mass. Certainly, the most excellent manifestation of the Paschal Mystery is the Eucharist and the tradition’s centerpiece of the funeral rites. Today, especially with the loss of understanding and practice surrounding the Eucharist and the living of the Christian life, the given spiritual importance of the funeral Mass for both the deceased and the mourners has diminished.

Pastors should not shrink away from proposing the funeral Mass for the deceased members of their community. The principal sign of the funeral Mass takes place with the Eucharistic prayer, with the offering of Christ and the bread and wine becoming his body and blood. In the same way, in this saving sacrifice, those who die with Christ, rise with him. The Eucharist announces the paschal character of Christian death. Death has no more power. The revenant and careful celebration — a dignified and beautiful celebration — of the funeral Eucharist by the priest and those assembled allows the very sign and event of the Eucharist to nourish the Christian faith and bring comfort to all in a more complete way.

The funeral Mass includes many elements and symbols that the Order of Christian Funerals highlights as contributing significantly to the paschal faith of the Church encountered in the celebration (cf. Nos. 21-42). The proclaiming and preaching of the word of God stands out above all others. The word announces the Paschal Mystery of Christ that will be realized at the altar with the Eucharistic prayer. The word deserves to be proclaimed by well-prepared proclaimers who are in the service of the word and those who will hear it. It is often unfair to ask a mourner to carry out this liturgical ministry.

The homily must focus on Christ and his saving work on behalf of the deceased and those who mourn. To do otherwise frequently misses the need of all those assembled to be encouraged in Christian hope.

Singing the actual texts of the funeral Mass — especially the entrance and Communion chants — reaches deeply into the well of the faith of the Church to speak in another way of her paschal faith.

In many instances, the songs at funerals have become typical and even at times contrary to the Christian faith. This is an aspect — liturgical music — that requires constant review for the fullest presentation of the robust faith of the Church in the Resurrection. The many symbols — the choice of vesture color, the paschal candle, the use of holy water and incense, the funeral pall, the items to be placed on the coffin — should be employed with diligent care and good intention to underscore the baptismal promise of everlasting life and the victory over sin and death. The perfunctory and minimal use of these symbols weakens their pastoral effectiveness.

The funeral outside of Mass offers an alternative when, for one reason or another, the funeral Mass cannot be celebrated and is governed by its own norms (cf. OCF, Nos. 177-182). This can be the case, with the bishop’s permission, for a baptized member of another church or ecclesial community (No. 18). If this is the case for a Roman Catholic, then a Mass for the deceased should be offered after the funeral (No. 129). The Order of Christian Funerals, as with the funeral Mass, outlines the structure and content of the celebration of the funeral outside of Mass. As with the funeral Mass, the same elements and symbols that manifest the paschal faith of the Church deserve special attention.

Both the funeral Mass and the funeral outside of Mass include the reception of the body and the final commendation and farewell. In the revision of the funeral rites, both of these rites give emphasis to the destiny of the resurrection in the promise of heaven for the deceased (cf. Nos. 131, 146).

The rite of committal has two forms as well. The second form includes the final commendation when, for some reason, it was not part of the funeral liturgy. The ritual book outlines the structure and content for both forms. As with the vigil and the funeral liturgy, the liturgical features of the rite should not be overlooked in terms of vesture, liturgical ministers, song and the participation of those assembled. With widespread cremation, the rite of committal is especially important — and especially when there is a delay in the burial of the cremated remains — to announce the faith of the Church in the resurrection of the body on the last day.

Concluding Points

The Order of Christian Funerals provides a generous amount of theological, liturgical and pastoral content to assist the priest in his important ministry of burying the dead and inviting the faithful to be a part of this work of mercy in the many different roles possible for them.

Part I, in addition to the funeral rites for adults, also provides for related rites and prayers that are often put aside. These rites and prayers — Prayers after Death, Gathering in the Presence of the Body and Transfer of the Body to the Church or to the Place of Committal — allow for the priest and others to be close to the family and friends of the deceased in faith and hope in the period soon after death (cf. OCF, No. 98). These rites and prayers easily can be adapted and give mourners the needed freedom to express their sorrow and to be reassured with Christian hope (Nos. 99-100).

Part II of the ritual book provides for the same three stations for the funeral rites for children with directions for all sorts of circumstances, especially for the burial of an infant.

Oftentimes, for no good or bad reason, the celebration of the funeral rites settles on the first set of texts and prayers provided in the Order of Christian Funerals or the Roman Missal. One of the remarkable features of the revised liturgical rituals is the great number and variety of texts and prayers available for use depending on the circumstances.

The Order of Christian Funerals offers a significant number of biblical texts for the funeral rites of adults, of baptized children and of children who died before baptism. Additionally, it offers a wide range of texts and prayers to be used throughout the funeral rites. The priest and those associated with him in the celebration of the funeral rites should see every part of the Order of Christian Funerals as a resource to bring forward, with especially appropriate texts and prayers, the paschal faith of the Church with the burial of a Christian. 

FATHER DENNIS GILL is rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia and the director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

 
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