Attending a Catholic Funeral

Thank you for considering attending a funeral in our parish. “Always go to the funeral” is an excellent motto to adopt. Yes, going to funerals isn’t fun. They can be somber, inconvenient and emotional affairs. You may feel awkward. But you do things because they’re right and good, and because your desire to serve others supersedes your own comfort.

We want to assure you right at the outset that we recognize the diversity of people who come through our doors. Not everyone in attendance will be Catholic and even many of the Catholics may not have attended many church funerals. As a result our parish team tries to create a warm, receptive and inclusive environment. Worried about when to sit or stand? Don’t worry! We open our doors to everyone who wishes to be present. It is important to us to make you comfortable and know that you are always welcome to worship with us.

It is hoped this simple guide will assist you in your attendance at a Catholic Funeral held in our parish.

What is a Mass Card?

For a Catholic family, consider getting the family a Mass card in lieu of flowers. You don’t have to be Catholic to get a Mass card. You make a donation to the Church, and in turn, the Church promises to say prayers or a Mass on behalf of the soul of the deceased. The card is given to the deceased family and the parish will contact them to arrange an appropriate date. For fellow Catholics, purchasing a Mass card is a gesture of faith, compassion, and solidarity. For non-Catholics, sending a Mass card shows your understanding, respect, and thoughtfulness.

What is the Vigil (the Wake)?

A Vigil normally takes place before the actual funeral service and is usually held in the afternoon and evening. If you cannot make it to the funeral, it is a good opportunity to come and support the deceased’s family. The Vigil may be held in someone’s home or at the funeral parlour. When you arrive, first offer your sympathy to the grieving family. This is the reason for the vigil, really. It gives the family an opportunity to hear from family and loved ones when they’re prepared to deal with it and in the grieving mindset.

Unless you’re close to the family, be sure to clearly introduce yourself to them and tell them how you know the deceased. Don’t leave them awkwardly trying to place who you are. Don’t worry about not knowing what to say or being emotional. Neither eloquence nor stoicism is expected.

If the casket or urn is present, take a moment to stand by it, saying a prayer or thinking of the deceased’s life. Then you may mingle with the other guests. You don’t have to stay too long-just long enough to make your presence felt and pay your respects. Be sure to sign the register with your name before you head out, as the family may wish to look it over later and/or send you a note of thanks.

Often the Pastor, the Deacon or a member of the congregation may arrive and lead a short service of prayers for the deceased and for the family. If you are present when that happens simply join in the time of prayer or momentarily leave the room if you feel uncomfortable.

Should you come to the funeral?

It may be tempting to rationalize that the person is dead and won’t know if you’re there or not. But funerals are not just for the dead, they are for the living. One of the few comforts available to the grieving is to see a full church, the pews packed with people who also care for and remember the deceased. There is power in that show of humanity. The family knows that attending a funeral is inconvenient, and that’s why they’ll never forget that you came anyway.

If you absolutely cannot come to the funeral, be sure to write the family of the deceased a sympathy note which includes your regret on not being able to make it.

Where should I sit?

Plan to arrive a few minutes early. Parking around the church can be limited and you may have to park a short distance from the church. The family, funeral vehicles and hearse usually begin to arrive about five minutes before the service. Give yourself a good ten to fifteen minutes extra time.

There is a progressive seating pattern with funerals; family sits in the first pews, followed by close friends, with acquaintances and co-workers farther back. The pall bearers will normally sit in the first pews, on the other side of the family. The front pews are usually marked with reserved signs. Choose a pew seat that feels comfortable for you.

You will see many Catholics genuflecting (touching their right knee to the floor when you enter or leave the church) just before they enter their seat. This is a sign of reverence when there is a tabernacle in place in the sanctuary. You do not have to do this, in fact, many Catholics due to age or infirmity can no longer practice this sign and so they either simply pause or make a slight bow before entering the pew.

How should I dress?

It is traditional in our community to dress in what might be described as “conservative business attire.” When we think of funerals, the first image that often leaps to mind is that of people dressed in black. While black is still the traditional colour for funerals, this standard has loosened up in modern times to include other dark, conservative clothing. Other cultures have different dress traditions.

That said, your presence is far more important than your attire. You will always be welcome at our church and we are certain the family will be pleased that you took the time to attend.

When do I stand, sit or kneel?

We stand as a sign of respect to greet the remains and family as they arrive at the church. Similarly we stand as the remains and family leave the church.

Throughout the service either the Pastor or the Deacon will gently guide you through with instructions as needed. You will also be able to follow the postures of those around you. If you are uncomfortable or unable to kneel it is acceptable to sit during those times. Similarly with the “Sign of the Cross” or “genuflecting” which are symbols of the Catholic faith: if you do not understand their meaning then there is no requirement to make the gesture.

What about Holy Communion?

The receiving of Holy Communion is reserved for those in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Don’t feel awkward because you choose not to come forward. Many Catholics in attendance also choose not to receive Holy Communion for various reasons. This is a normal part of every Mass celebrated and goes largely unnoticed by those around you.

If you are not receiving, and you do find yourself in the communion procession, simply crossing your arms over your chest will indicate to the minister that you are not going to receive. The minister will then offer a short prayer for you at that moment and you return to your seat. The response to anything that is said is simply “Amen.”

Is there anything else I should know?

Just that the Catholic funeral is a wealth of signs and symbols, of scripture and prayers. You will see water sprinkled placed on the coffin as a sign of the deceased’s baptism, incense used as a sign of respect and of the community’s prayers rising to heaven. You will hear readings, music and times when the whole congregation joins in singing the psalm refrain, parts of the Masses, or saying the Lord’s Prayer.

You will see that the casket is covered with a pall (a white cloth) and notice a large “Paschal Candle” lit at the front. These symbols that have their roots on the day of the deceased’s baptism and in the white garment worn on that day. The paschal candle is a symbol of God’s light shining in the world. It is blessed and first lit in a special service called the “Easter Vigil” each year. On the day of baptism a smaller candle is lit from it, handed to the parents, with the instructions to “keep this light shining.”

The Catholic Funeral looks forward to the promise of eternal life when heaven and earth are reunited. Listen carefully to the words of the prayers and you will hear the great universal statements of faith as “life has changed, not ended.”

Driving in the Funeral Procession

Funeral processions are one of the few remaining outward signs of death in this society. Living in a rural community one regularly sees the oncoming traffic come to a complete stop as the funeral procession passes.

After the funeral, everyone will get in their cars and proceed as a group to the cemetery. The cars will follow behind the hearse. Turn on your headlights and emergency blinkers and closely follow the car in front of you. The procession will drive slower than the speed limit. If the procession starts through a light while it’s green and it turns red by the time you get to it, keep on going.

As a normal driver, when you come upon a funeral procession, do your best to let them pass and stay together. Don’t try to cut into the procession. If safe, pull to the side of the road and let the line keep going. In the old days, men got out of their cars and doffed their hats while the procession passed. Probably too dangerous on our modern thoroughfares, but a nice thought.

Post Funeral Luncheon

Many families host a luncheon at their home after the graveside service, or immediately following the service if the committal is at a later time. It’s a time to be a little more light hearted than is expected at the wake or funeral and share a laugh as you reminisce about the deceased.

Follow-Up

Perhaps the most important part of “funeral etiquette” is not to let your consideration for those in mourning be a one day affair. After all the hoopla of funeral planning is over, the grief and reality of the loss of a loved one will really set in for the family and friends of the deceased.

So don’t forget about them in the weeks and months after the funeral. Stop by and give them a call. Invite them out for social gatherings. They may say no for some time, but they’ll eventually reach the point where they’re ready to go back out, and they’ll be grateful that you kept thinking of them.

Call your friend or family member on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. They’ll appreciate that you still remember and continue to acknowledge their passing.