How Funeral Rites and Devotions Help the Faithful Face Death

The Church has a beautiful treasury of prayer and liturgy for facing the end of life.

A requiem Mass is offered for the repose of a soul.
A requiem Mass is offered for the repose of a soul. (photo: 2016 photo, Raymond Deleon/

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Before he had an opportunity to celebrate a baptism or marriage, Christian rites that mark the beginning of new life, the newly ordained Deacon Michael Forrest was assisting at the Christian rites that mark the end of life for two people close to his heart.

“Before I had a chance to breathe, I was serving at a dear friend’s funeral, a friend who wanted to be at my ordination,” he said. Soon thereafter, his own mother passed away.

“It was my mother who once told me way back in the day that I should be a minister,” Deacon Forrest, a former Baptist, recalled. He had held his mother’s hand on the vigil of her death, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet before she passed away the following morning. “She held on, to just after I was ordained.”

For Deacon Forrest, celebrating  the Church’s funeral rites was an intensely emotional experience. But their architecture, he said, conveys “the sense of God’s great mercy and loving-kindness.”

The Catholic Church provides beautiful rites and devotions — some of them not well-known — that help people squarely face death with the hope of the resurrection and turn their mourning into intercession on behalf of their loved ones.

The Church’s funeral rites are divided into three main parts: the vigil service, the funeral Mass and the Rite of Committal (for burial or internment).

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the vigil service is a special Liturgy of the Word, or it can take the form of praying the Office of the Dead from the Liturgy of the Hours. It can be held in the funeral home (at the wake), or in the church itself where the funeral Mass is to be subsequently held.

“Having the vigil service allowed loved ones to come forward,” Deacon Forrest said, explaining it offers opportunities for prayer and for loved ones to offer reflections on the life of the person who has died.

Deacon Forrest said that many people today have a “Celebration of Life” when their loved one dies. He said that while there is an important place for that, the Catholic funeral rites help a person come to grips with the full ramifications of death and what it means for their lives.

“The Catholic rites, whether it is the funeral Mass, the Office of the Dead, the vigil service, they resonate with us on some level precisely because we know it is true and we need this,” he said.

“We see this ability to face the reality, face the fear, face the brokenness, and to say, ‘No, we have an answer. You can trust your God who is going to deliver,’” he said.


Symbols and Meaning

The funeral Mass is also heavily laden with symbolism, but it is stressed in different ways in the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman Rite.

Father Robert Schmid, parochial vicar at St. Paul Catholic Church in New Bern, North Carolina, told the Register that the ordinary form of the Roman Rite makes more explicit connections between the deceased person’s baptism and the funeral rite, such as having the Paschal candle, which is a reminder of the hope of the resurrection. It also has prayers of thanksgiving for that person’s life.

The laying on of the funeral pall is also reminiscent of one’s baptismal garment. The Church in the U.S., he said, has an indult to use white at funerals. He said traditionally the Church ordinarily uses black or purple for funeral colors for a deceased Catholic who has attained the use of reason. These traditional colors intend to affirm the person’s experience of the desolation of death, while having white or gold trim on the vestments is to remind people of the hope of the resurrection.

Father Schmid said the funeral rites of the extraordinary form have far less variability in the prayers and put a far greater stress on the expiatory prayers for the deceased, that they may be delivered from eternal punishment.

“There’s an emphasis of the Church praying for and mourning, with a definite sense of loss and uncertainty with whether a person is in heaven,” he said, something that is reflected in the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) and Libera Me (Deliver Me). These are not in the new rite, but can be requested as hymns. However, he said the old rite also stresses “the hope” that a person may be delivered from their sins into paradise with God.  

The incensing and sprinkling rites at a Catholic funeral, he said, also remind people that this person was baptized and anointed as a temple of the Holy Spirit. At the graveside committal, the resurrection is invoked in the prayers.

“The resurrection is ever present as we invoke God’s mercy for this person,” he said.


Office of the Dead

One of the rarely seen features (outside religious life) in Catholic parishes is the Office of the Dead contained in the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the public prayer of the Church and available to all the baptized faithful.

“The Office of the Dead is a beautiful part of the Church’s liturgy,” Father Schmid said.

The Latin Church’s Office of the Dead goes back to the Church’s first millennium.

According to Knud Ottosen in The Responsories and Versicles of the Latin Office of the Dead, vespers (Evening Prayer) from the Office of the Dead would precede the vigil service, which would be followed by lauds (Morning Prayer) from the Office of the Dead. These offices would be prayed again on the third, seventh and 30th days following the funeral.

However, Father Schmid said these offices are rarely requested. Without the Liturgy of the Hours, such as lauds or vespers, being regularly prayed in the parish church, “which Vatican II called for,” people are not going to have vespers or lauds for the dead “in their field of vision.”

“They don’t think about it, they don’t know about it, and they don’t think to ask,” he said.

Deacon Forrest said the Office of the Dead’s readings offer powerful comfort and agreed that priests and deacons need to do a better job explaining that they are available, since they offer a “message of hope and deliverance.”


Devotions for the Dying and Departed

Clinton Brand, the chairman of the English department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, told the Register that Catholics used to have a rich devotional repository of prayers around the hour of death and afterward, but they fell out of print in the period following the Second Vatican Council.

Brand said many of these prayers are now back in circulation with the new St. Gregory’s Prayer Book (Ignatius Press), which he edited. It reintroduces to Catholics those prayers that had been preserved in Anglo-Catholic devotionals with the poetry of Prayer Book English. They fill the gaps between the rites of the Church, since the faithful can recite them as a loved one is dying, or after their death, such as with the “Nine Days’ Prayer for the Faithful Departed.”

“There is something so anchoring and consoling about this traditional repertoire of prayers,” he said.

When his godfather was dying, Brand prayed the Litany of the Dying. At the end was the death rattle, and by heart, he tried to recite the final commendation, which begins: “Go forth, Christian soul …”

“This is something that all the faithful can do,” he said.

Deacon Forrest said between the devotions and public rites of the Church, a Catholic does not have to sit with their grief, but can “transform it through faith, hope and love in concrete ways.”

He added, “These are all things a person can do to harness that grief and, through faith, turn that into an engine of salvation and healing.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.