Christian burials involve a number of steps before the body is interred in consecrated ground.
Steps Involved in Christian Burials
Preparation of the Body
Before the burial, the deceased person's body is washed. It is believed that one must be clean before entering the Kingdom of Heaven. After cleansing, the body is dressed (usually in the person's best clothing). The next part of the process is to place the body in a casket, which is displayed on a covered stand known as a catafalque. The person's hands are crossed on top of the chest in the same fashion as when the person would have received Communion in life. If desired, a prayer book or rosary may be placed in his or her hands.
In modern North American society, these preparations are performed by the funeral director. In the past, the family members performed these duties and the body was laid out at home before burial.
The wake is the modern version the ancient practice of sitting with the dead. Friends and family members are received at the funeral home to share in the family's grief. Flowers and photographs of the deceased may be displayed at the funeral home during the wake.
The casket is displayed and may be opened or closed, depending on circumstances of death and the family's preference. The purpose of displaying of the body is to allow the mourners to acknowledge the reality of their loved one's death.
In some Christian denominations, the custom is to have a prayer service at the wake. Scripture and prayers with a theme of comforting those who are in mourning are read during this service. A eulogy may be given at this time as well.
The Funeral Service
If the funeral service is to be held in a church, the priest or minister enters first. The casket, carried by pallbearers, and the family members follow. When the service is concluded, the same order is followed when leaving the church.
Hymns are usually sung during the service. These are chosen for their sense of comfort and hope in the face of death. Christians acknowledge their loss but look forward to being reunited with their loved ones at a later time.
The priest or minister will give a sermon or homily. It will remind those assembled for the funeral of the Christian perspective about death; that those who have passed on in faith will have eternal life with God. By his own resurrection, Jesus conquered death for all Christians.
Passages from the Bible will be read. A passage from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospels will be selected for inclusion in the service. Holy Communion will be included in the funeral service.
Once the service has concluded, family members and friends will leave the church and go to the place where the body is to be placed in the grave. The graveyard may be next to the church or the casket may need to transported to another location by hearse.
Christian burials also include a brief service at the grave site. Prayers are spoken by the priest or minister as the body is committed to the grave. Friends and family members say their final goodbyes. This may include placing flowers on the casket. A small amount of dirt may be placed on the casket as well.
Reception Following the Funeral
Following the funeral service, it is traditional for the family to host a reception for those who attended the funeral. Food and drink are provided. This is an opportunity for the immediate family to receive emotional support in their time of grief and puts off the time when they must return home alone.
The stages of Christian burials are designed to remind those who have lost a loved one of their faith and to give them hope during this difficult time. The presence of others in the first few days following death is helpful as well.