FAQ Funerals

Frequently Asked Questions on Burying the Dead:

Q:  How does the Church view the bereavement and what is the value of the funeral rite? 

A:  Because of our belief not only in the immortality of the soul, but also in the resurrection of the body, the Church professes hope in the face of death, and acts with charity in the funeral rites. The Church provides a number of prayers for the faithful to offer both to accompany the dying of a loved one and to strengthen our faith upon their death. Through private prayer and public funeral rites, we strengthen our faith and hope, comfort those who mourn, and bury the bodily remains of the deceased with care befitting what was the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Click here for more on this topic from the USCCB.

Q:  Is a Funeral Mass necessary?

A:  Yes, according to the Laws of the Church a Funeral Mass is absolutely necessary.  Out of respect for our dead, it is best that we ensure a Funeral Mass is offered since it unites our loved one’s death with that of Christ at Calvary.  An unbelieving world will try to convince us that a Funeral is merely empty ritual.  This is a flat denial of long-standing Christian teachings and  to deny a departed soul the spiritual assistance of the Sacrifice at Calvary would be uncharitable.

“Canon 1176 §1. Deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law.  §2. Ecclesiastical funerals, by which the Church seeks spiritual support for the deceased, honors their bodies, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living, must be celebrated according to the norm of the liturgical laws. §3. The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”  See full text of Canons 1176-1185.

Q:  What is so special about burying the dead?

A:  Sacred Scripture tells us that each human body was made in God’s Image and bears His Likeness.  As such, the human body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit.  After living-out the days appointed for one’s life, the human body retains a certain dignity as we all await the General Resurrection.  Often the body retains the  external scars and markings of having traveled through life with its various experiences, trails and concerns.  Considered in terms of the Faith, externals such as wrinkles, scars and gray hair can be thought of as badges of honor and crowns that recall the many concerns and struggles that mark a Christian life.  In these ways, the body holds the record of a life well-lived and deserves profound respect.  Further, burying the dead is a Corporal Work of Mercy that is both meritorious and cathartic.  It can be both comforting and reassuring to visit the mortal remains of our loved ones.

Q:  What is the Church’s position on Cremation?

A:  The guiding document from Rome on this matter is called:  Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo.  This Church explains that cremation is discouraged yet permitted under certain conditions. “Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places…  In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body…  By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body…  Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works.  All necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed, however cremation is not ‘opposed per se to the Christian religion’… under the condition that this choice has not been made through ‘a denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church.‘ ”

Q:  What about scattering or privately reserving ashes? 

A:  These practices should not be done for a number of reasons.  First, for the Church, death has a positive meaning – it looks forward to the General Resurrection of all the dead.  If cremation is deemed necessary, the ashen remains must be buried in one place in anticipation of this great event.  Secondly, any sprinkling, separating or distributing ashes is prohibited because it minimizes the possibility of praying for the departed soul by privatizing it so that only a select few may participate.  If scattered or privately reserved, prayer for the departed soul becomes a matter of specific knowledge, special status or privileged access.  This works against allowing the Church’s ordinary work of praying for the dead which happens frequently in public ways, for example when masses are said at cemeteries or when the Church diligently prayer for the Faithful Departed during the month of November.  The departed soul buried in a publicly accessible cemetery receives the benefit of these prayers and masses while privately reserved cremains do not.  “Since Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians.”  Scattering ashes or the private reservation of cremains stands in stark contrast to the “universal” character of Catholicism and must be avoided.    See more from, Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo.

Q:  What is the precedent for burying the dead? 

A:  There is considerable precedent for burying the dead.  The Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah is a classic example.  The Tomb of the Matriarchs houses the mortal remains of Jochebed (the mother of Moses) and many more women of royal heritage.  Since the earliest days of Christendom, the mortal remains of fellow Christians have been regarded with the utmost reverence.  Examples include the tomb of St. Peter which is located under the altar of the Vatican and the special care given to the bodily remains of St. Stephen immediately after he was martyred.  The tombs holding the remains of the Faithful Departed were always carefully marked and visited by fellow Christians who were still among the living.  These tombs are highly regarded and frequently visited to this day.  When we bury our dead we create the possibility to visit, pray and be inspired.  Click here to read about the Catacombs of Rome.

Q:  Is there any mention of prayers for the dead in Sacred Scripture?

A:  The Old Testament reference in 2 Maccabees 12:38-45 as well as Saint Paul’s teaching in 2 Timothy 1:18 give us Biblical evidence of offering prayer and sacrifice for those who have gone before us.  As a life-giving Corporal Work of Mercy, we find that “Burying the Dead” according to the Funeral Rites gives us moments of great consolation and deep healing.  Tertullian is the first Church Father to write about prayer for the dead in approximately the year 200 A.D.

Q:  What is the short phrase/response that people seem to use regarding prayer for the dead?

A:  A short phrase we sometimes hear is borrowed from the Traditional Latin Requiem Mass.  When a person says or writes RIP, they are most definitely referring to a Catholic Requiem Mass.  The Latin phrase, “Requiescat in Pace,” translates “May he rest in peace.”  There is something comforting and reassuring about knowing the physical location and resting place of the body of our loved ones and being able to utter these time-tested words.

Q:  In what ways is a full Wake/Vigil, Funeral Mass and Christian Burial helpful?

A:  The Funeral Ritual and burial of our loved ones is beneficial in many ways.  The US Conference of Bishops explains specifics of the ritual and impact of the teaching that accompanies the Funeral Rite.  Among other reasons, it is always important to follow time-tested ways of expressing grief so that we might properly heal.

Q:  What will happen at the General Resurrection?

A:  The Catholic Encyclopedia entry explains that, “Resurrection is the rising again from the dead, the resumption of life. The Fourth Lateran Council teaches that all men, whether elect or reprobate, “will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear about with them” (cap. ‘Firmiter’).”  The Resurrection is a dogma or an article of the Faith.  Click here for the complete entry.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that, “just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day.”  Click here for CCC# 989 on the Resurrection.  This is a hopeful moment; at that time our souls will be re-united with our mortal bodies as God more fully unveils his eternal plan.

Helpful Links:

US Catholic Bishops on Funeral Rites

Purgatory and Praying for the Dead by Pat McCloskey, OFM, Franciscan Media

We have to pray for the Living and the Dead by Pope Francis, Catechesis on Mercy, Nov. 2016:

On the Christian Burial of the Dead by Raymond Cardinal Burke