Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington

The Catholic Way of Death & Burial

What to do when there is a death in the family

“If pastoral and personal considerations allow, the period before death may be an appropriate time to plan the funeral rites with the family and even with the family member who is dying. Although planning the funeral before death should be approached with sensitivity and care, it can have the effect of helping the one who is dying and the family face the reality of death with Christian hope. It can also help relieve the family of numerous details after the death and may allow them to benefit more fully from the celebration of the funeral rites.”

—Order of Christian Funerals (OOCF), #17

Step 1 — Before Death

Plan a visit with your parish priest so he can offer the Sacraments to the dying family member and answer any questions the family may have about death and burial in the Catholic Church. Discuss your dying family member’s wishes, taking into full consideration what is best for them and their loved ones. What kind of a funeral and burial do they want? Where will the family gather to pray for their soul in the years to come? If the person expresses a desire to be cremated, pursue their motivation. Funeral industry research shows that people often request cremation in order to save their loved ones the grief of seeing their body in death. In fact, a final encounter with the body of a loved one is extremely important to family and friends. The lack of a body during the vigil, funeral and burial often makes the reality of death more difficult to accept for those who have been left behind.

“The Catholic Church strongly prefers that the body of the deceased be present for its funeral rites since the presence of the body most clearly brings to mind the life and death of the person…The body which lies in death naturally recalls the personal story of faith, the loving family bonds, the friendships, and the words and acts of kindness of the deceased person. Indeed, the human body is inextricably associated with the human person, which acts and is experienced by others through that body.”

—OOCF, "Reflections on the Body,
Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites” and #411

Step 2 — At Death

Call your parish priest. He can pray with you, comfort your family and answer any questions you may have during the next few sorrowful days. After you have talked to a priest, contact a funeral director and a Catholic cemeterian. Since the arrangements for death and burial require significant choices, it is important not to hand over all responsibility for the vigil, funeral and burial to a funeral director alone. You can—and should—talk to both the rectory and cemetery office yourself, as well. After major decisions have taken place, the funeral director can confirm your plans. Unless an autopsy is expected, the funeral director will send a car to convey the body from its place of death to the funeral home.

At the parish, you will receive help planning either a Mass of Christian Burial or a Memorial Mass. The priest or parish representative will help you pick the readings and responses, and offer options for music. You may want to have a program prepared for use during the Mass or prayer service. The rectory staff can provide you with information on this, as well.

At the funeral home, the director will help you plan for the vigil, funeral and viewings. You will have to choose a casket, an important consumer option with a considerable price range. If you want him to, the director can help you order flowers and provide transportation for your family for the funeral Mass and burial at the cemetery. You will also be asked to provide information for a death notice in the newspaper. Bring as much vital statistic information as you can such as your family member’s social security number, life insurance information, etc.

At the cemetery, the cemetarian will assist you in selecting a burial location. In the Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese, you have the option of ground burial or entombment in a mausoleum. For ground burial, memorialization is available either with upright monuments at selected locations or in-ground bronze plaques. An outer container is also needed to hold the casket. If the body has been cremated, in ground burial or entombment in a mausoleum niche are available options. These consumer choices at the cemetery are significant long-term decisions. This is why the Church recommends planning ahead, so that choices can be made without the heavy sorrow so debilitating at the time of death.

Step 3 — The Vigil

The vigil is held either at the funeral home, private residence or in the parish church. The Church provides a liturgy of the Word for the comfort of family and friends. It is also traditional to have a priest, deacon, nun, family member or friend lead the mourners in the Rosary. The vigil is a time to pray for the soul of the faithful departed and all the other souls of family members. It is a time to remember the life of the deceased and comfort the living. Depending on the family’s wishes, the vigil can be held for one or two days.

“At the vigil, the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence. It is the first occasion among the funeral rites for the solemn reading of the word of God. In this time of loss, the family and community turn to God's word as the source of faith and hope, as light and life in the face of darkness and death.”

—OOCF, #56

Step 4 — The Funeral

The Mass of Christian Burial with the presence of the body of the deceased in the church provides the full meaning of the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Here, the family is reminded that this loved one who was baptized in Christ, and nourished at the altar, still lives on, and shares in the hope of the Resurrection of the body. The Church asks that any eulogies for the deceased take place after the Mass is ended, before the final blessing.

The Memorial Mass for the Dead takes place without the presence of the body. A Memorial service of prayers is another option with the liturgy of the Word, although the Church most highly encourages the Eucharistic celebration to pray for the dead and comfort the mourners.

“At the funeral liturgy, the community gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God's tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the paschal mystery. Through the Holy Spirit, the community is joined together in faith as one Body in Christ to reaffirm in sign and symbol, word and gesture, that each believer through baptism shares in Christ’s death and resurrection and can look to the day when all the elect will be raised up and united in the kingdom of light and peace.”

—OOCF, #129

Step 5 — The Burial

The Church asks that the burial of the body take place after the Funeral, preferably in the sacred ground of a Catholic cemetery. Catholic cemeteries call to mind our faith in the Risen Christ as the faithful wait together in joyful hope for the resurrection of their bodies.

At the graveside, the priest or deacon leads a service of prayers, blessing the grave and praying for the soul of the deceased and all the other souls buried in the cemetery. Because the Church recognizes the great dignity of the human body, she asks that cremated remains never be scattered, but buried in the sacred ground of a cemetery. This is in keeping with the sanctity of the body and provides a place for the family to gather in prayer.

“The rite [of committal] marks the separation in this life of the mourners from the deceased, and through it the community assists them as they complete their care for the deceased and lay the body to rest. The act of committal is a stark and powerful expression of this separation. When carried out in the midst of the community of faith, the committal can help the mourners to face the end of one relationship with the deceased and to begin a new one based on prayerful remembrance, gratitude and the hope of resurrection and reunion.”

—OOFC, #213

Step 6 — Remembrance

The weeks and months following a death in the family are numbing and difficult. Prayer and participation in the life of the Church can provide comfort and a way of continuing the relationship with the deceased family member. Visits to the cemetery also provide comfort and an ongoing assurance of the Church's hope in the resurrection of the dead. The Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese celebrate monthly masses for the souls of the faithful departed buried there, as well as special prayer services and Masses such as Good Friday Stations of the Cross, Memorial Day, and the Commemorations of Our Lady of Sorrows and All Souls. Every day, family members experience the peace and comfort that comes from visiting the ground set aside and made sacred, the resting place of their loved ones.