Roman Catholic Funeral Traditions

Jun 22, 2010 | 1 comment

Roman Catholic funeral traditions massRoman Catholic Funeral Traditions

This post highlights general funeral practices for Roman Catholics. The actual practices of individuals, families, and congregations may vary.

There are more than 61 million Roman Catholics in the United States, encompassing many different ethnic traditions.

Funerals usually take place within two to three days, possibly up to one week after the death. The first day after a death is usually reserved for the family to make arrangements for the funeral. The second day is often reserved for a wake or visitation, which is commonly held at a funeral home and may possibly last two days.

The body is usually viewed at the visitation event, and possibly at the funeral. The wake provides an opportunity for the community to gather, pray, express their sympathies, and pay their respects. The style of the wake varies depending on the ethnicity of the deceased and his or her family. (See this post about traditional Irish wakes for a detailed description.)

Regarding cremation, the Catholic Church does allow the celebration of the Funeral Liturgy in the presence of cremated remains, but strongly prefers that the body of the deceased be present for its funeral rites and cremation to take place afterward. The cremated remains are due the same respect as the remains of the body, and the Church dictates that cremains must be buried in a cemetery, entombed in a columbarium, or buried at sea.

Roman Catholic funeral rites include a Vigil Service celebrated in the funeral home or the church the day or evening before the funeral, the Funeral Mass in the church, and the Rite of Committal of the body at the cemetery. The Vigil Service includes the recitation of the rosary with a priest and eulogies by family or friends.

The priest conducts the funeral liturgy, which includes a Mass, and the Rites of Burial. The service includes readings from the Bible, singing of hymns, and Holy Communion. Books include a hymnal, the New American Bible and a prayer book, also called a missal.

Guests of other faiths are expected to stand with the congregation. It is optional for others to kneel, read prayers aloud, and sing. Non-Catholics should not receive communion or say any prayers contradictory to the beliefs of their own faith. At graveside, the priest will lead a brief service and commit the body into the ground.

The family may hold a reception after the funeral at home, a restaurant, or other location. Food is served, and possibly alcohol. It is appropriate to send flowers and/or food to the home before or after the funeral or to the funeral home before the funeral. Charitable contributions are not customary unless the family indicates they are appropriate. A mass is held annually on the anniversary of the death.

Do’s and Don’ts: Sign the guest book and sit where you like. If arriving late, enter quietly. It is not appropriate to take pictures or record the service (both audio and video). When viewing the body, observe with silent prayer. Express your condolences to the family.

Mourning period: A mourner might return to work and a normal social schedule after a week.

This information is included in A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die by Gail Rubin, author of The Family Plot Blog. The book, which includes funeral traditions for many major faiths, is available in print and ebook formats at, and at

For more details on this religion’s history, beliefs, and funeral practices, you may wish to consult this excellent resource: The Perfect Stranger’s Guide to Funerals and Grieving Practices: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies (SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT), or visit

Please post a comment to let me know if you find this information helpful, or if there are specific details you were looking for that this post did not address.

A Good Goodbye