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Planning a Catholic Funeral: Understanding the Steps

Tom May
Priest reading from the Bible

Planning a Catholic funeral is a difficult task during a time of intense grief. A Catholic funeral provides hope during one of the darkest moments of life. This guide will help you organize your efforts to provide a service that respects your loved one.

Guide to Planning a Catholic Funeral

Although planning a Catholic funeral often occurs at a time of intense sorrow and emotion, many of the decisions involve practical tasks and services that need to be performed during this important time for your family. Beginning the process of making funeral arrangements can bring structure and comfort, placing you on a path of celebrating the life of your loved one. This guide will help you think through and organize the process.

Select a Funeral Director

Even if you are planning a religious ceremony, you will need to work with a funeral home. The funeral home handles a number of important services:

  • Transport and handle your loved one's remains in a caring and appropriate manner
  • Work with the florist
  • Plan the details of the memorial or wake
  • Work with the church
  • Help you make decisions about a casket
  • Make arrangements with a cemetery
  • Help you make choices that fit within your budget and needs

Contact Pastoral Staff

Throughout the process, you will also work with the pastoral staff at your preferred church. Most of the time, this is staff from your deceased loved one's congregation. Contacting church staff immediately allows for planning and scheduling. Clergy handle funerals on a regular basis. Even if you do not know them, they will show compassion and concern as they work with you through this process. Clergy may assist you with the following:

  • Honoring any of the deceased's wishes for their funeral
  • Incorporating meaningful Scripture and hymns
  • Following the funeral style traditional to the congregation
  • Securing musicians and others

Decide Between Burial and Cremation

One of the first decisions the funeral director will request is whether the person who has died is to be buried or cremated. Catholic tradition is to bury the dead immediately after the funeral. Most families find comfort and closure through such a burial ceremony.

  • The Catholic Church has allowed cremation of a body since 1963.
  • Cremation is often less expensive than a cemetery burial.
  • If the deceased has requested cremation, or if this is your personal preference, practicing Catholics can use this option.
  • The Church believes that the ashes should be buried in an approved cemetery rather than kept in a home.
  • The Church prefers the cremation occurs after the funeral. This allows display of the body during the wake and funeral service.
  • If cremation is necessary before the service, place ashes in an appropriate container and display them in a prominent place during the service.

Keep in mind that although the Catholic church outlines certain preferences, you can also consider your wishes as well as the wishes of your deceased loved one.

Determine the Funeral Location

Timing and location will depend on individual preferences, Catholic funeral traditions, and availability. Often a Catholic believer's funeral is held in the church with the burial taking place in a consecrated cemetery; however, your family and loved one's wishes are always an important consideration. Places you can hold a service include the following:

  • Funeral home
  • Church
  • Cemetery
  • Crematorium
Women praying in an old church

Decide on a Catholic Mass or Liturgy of the Word

Typically, the Catholic Church will celebrate a Mass with the family participating in the funeral. The Mass honors the person and demonstrates a point in time of returning the person to God. If the person has been away from the church for a long time or was not an active member of the church, a Liturgy of the Word, or a funeral without the Mass, may seem more appropriate. You might also consider a Liturgy of the Word under the following circumstances:

  • A member of the clergy isn't available when the loved one needs to be buried
  • If the funeral occurs on holy days when a funeral Mass is not allowed
  • If the service is to be performed outside of the church, even in a person's home

Share the News of Your Loved One's Passing

With so many decisions arising in such a short period, it's easy to forget to contact important people about the unfortunate news of the loss of your loved one. Prepare a list of the people who need to know of the death. It may be helpful to have such a list prepared ahead of a death when you do your funeral pre-planning. Include the following people on the list:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Employers and former employers
  • Organizations and charities
  • Military and paramilitary organizations

Include the names and contact information of the people and organizations in the list and give it to a trusted family member or friend to reach out to the people and organizations on the list.

Give Instructions Regarding Flowers

Flower arrangements have long been considered an appropriate gift for a Catholic funeral. Florists send such gifts directly to the funeral home. Other flower arrangements, such as crosses or sprays, are often displayed on easels. It is also appropriate to send smaller bouquets or plants to the home of the family of the deceased.

Funeral Flowers

Give Details of Designated Charity in Lieu of Flowers

There are some families that will request guests make donations to a charity or organization instead of flowers. A memorial donation is an appropriate idea, even if no specific instructions are made. If it is the family's desire that donations be made, notify both the funeral director and church staff. Give specific details about the charity so that people can make an appropriate gift.

Finalize Details With Priest and Funeral Director

Reconnect with the priest and the funeral director to finalize plans for the services. They will both continue to reassure you of the process and offer you comfort and confidence. Most of the important items will be passed along between the two of them, but communication assures that your family's wishes are carried out during the funeral.

Arrange for a Reception After the Funeral

Often, the family and close friends will want to gather following the gravesite service for food and fellowship. Families enjoy a time to remember and celebrate the loved one in a more informal setting. You can offer a full meal or a simple punch and cookie arrangement. The church will usually host this for you. Many churches have volunteers that provide the food.

Printable Catholic Funeral Planning Checklist

Print the checklist below to assist you as you plan. To download, click on the image. If you need help, consult this guide for Adobe printables.

Planning a Catholic Funeral Checklist

What Is the Catholic Funeral Mass Order of Service?

A full Catholic Funeral Mass requires a formal structure of service. Though each parish and priest has a little flexibility, much of the order of the service has been sanctified by the Vatican. Family members may play significant roles in the service, allowing special meaning for the grieving family. The order of the Mass follows this progression:

Introductory Rites

The congregation will stand during this portion of the service. The introductory rites include this handful of items.

  • Greeting
  • Sprinkling of Holy Water on the casket or urn
  • Placing of the Pall (the Pall is the large white cloth)
  • Entrance procession
  • Opening prayer

Liturgy of the Word

This portion of the service involves a liturgy of Scripture readings. The congregation may be seated during this portion of the Mass.

  • First reading
  • Responsorial Psalm (sung or read by cantor)
  • Second reading
  • Gospel acclamation (congregation will stand)
  • Gospel reading (following the reading, the congregation will be seated)
  • Homily
  • Prayers of the faithful (congregation will stand for the prayers, then be seated)

Liturgy of the Eucharist

The word Eucharist is a portion of the Mass consecrating and consuming the bread and wine. Holy Communion commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with His disciples.

  • Presentation of the gifts (bread and wine) and preparation of the altar
  • Casket is incensed (a hymn is usually sung during the incensing, urns are not treated in this manner)
  • Prayer over the offerings
  • Eucharistic prayer (a preface and introductory prayers may also be given)
  • The hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy" is sung
  • First half of prayer, including the consecration is given (those able are asked to kneel for prayer)
  • Mystery of faith
  • Second half of prayer (at the close of this prayer, congregation will stand)
  • The Lord's Prayer
  • Sign of peace
  • Lamb of God (those able are asked to kneel afterward)
  • Reception of Holy Communion (practicing Catholics who are not conscious of serious sin and have observed at least a one-hour fast before the service may receive Holy Communion. Non-Catholics are welcome to approach the priest with arms crossed over their chest to receive a blessing from the priest).
  • Many churches are now allowing a time for eulogies at this point in the service. Check with the local priest for parish traditions. No more than two are allowed. The congregation is seated during this time.
  • Prayer following Holy Communion

Concluding Rites

During the concluding rites, the congregation will stand and remain standing until their dismissal.

  • Final prayers for deceased
  • Song of farewell
  • Dismissal

Catholic Funeral Considerations

From birth until death, the Catholic Church uses structure and ceremony to honor and celebrate the threads of the presence of God in the fabric of human life. These are some things to keep in mind when planning a Catholic funeral.

How Long After Death Is a Catholic Funeral?

How long after the death should the funeral take place? Typically, a Catholic funeral occurs within a week of the death; however, timing may vary depending on other factors. When planning the timing of the funeral, consider the following:

  • Preparation of the body
  • Availability of clergy and family
  • Church schedule

Should You Hold a Vigil?

The Catholic Church also includes the tradition of a Vigil ceremony, usually held the night before the funeral Mass. It is the first part of the funeral service.

  • Hold the Vigil at the funeral home unless the number of people expected are more than the funeral home can handle. In such cases, hold the Vigil at the church.
  • A member of the clergy leads the Vigil.
  • The Vigil includes prayers, readings, and eulogies given by family members and friends.

Should You Have a Viewing?

You may opt to hold a viewing of the body before the Vigil and before the Mass. During both services, the casket is closed and covered with a white cloth. The cloth symbolizes the person's baptism.

Group of people sitting at funeral

What Things Would You Like Included in the Service?

The Catholic Church has guidelines on which hymns and Scriptures can be used in the church services, but there is more flexibility for the choices made during a Vigil held at a funeral home. The Priest and funeral directors can provide the lists for you. Many churches have the options available on their church's website. Your loved one may have expressed preferences.

Who Will Participate in the Service?

Decide the role family members and friends will perform at the funeral service. Non-clergy can perform some of the functions within the Mass at the church. If no family member feels comfortable in these roles, most parishes have volunteers who are trained in performing the services.

Some decisions you'll need to make include:

  • Who will read Scriptures?
  • Who will compose and read prayers?
  • Who will place a Bible and crucifix on the coffin?
  • Who will bring forward the bread and wine at the full Mass?

Who Will Act as Pallbearers?

The pallbearers carry the casket in and out of the church. They may also be required to move the casket from a vehicle to the cemetery location. The function of the pallbearer is considered a great honor. Some family members may deeply desire this task. Ask family and friends who would be interested in serving in this way. When choosing pallbearers, keep the following in mind.

  • The person will actually be carrying the casket.
  • The casket is heavy, and the weight may prohibit some people from serving in this way.
  • Typically, there are eight pallbearers.

Will You Include a Eulogy?

During the service or Mass, expect a homily instead of a eulogy speech. The priest will offer appropriate words on life and eternity rather than words about the individual themselves. The ceremony is meant to point people toward God. The Vigil is the appropriate setting for words about the person given by friends and family members. Decide how many and who you would like to speak. If no family members feel strong enough to offer these words, the priest will gladly include personal testimonies at the Vigil. This is particularly true if the individual was an active member of the local church.

You're Not Alone

Planning an order of service that encourages thanksgiving to God for the life of the departed loved one while comforting those left behind seems like a daunting task. Fortunately, you will receive help from trained individuals, such as the funeral director and members of the clergy and staff, at your loved one's church to guide you through the process. Knowing your loved one is honored and remembered can bring peace during a time of sorrow.

Planning a Catholic Funeral: Understanding the Steps