As of now, we have mostly explored funeral practices that are very different from what most would considered the “norm”—at least in Canada. To better illustrate this divide, I thought it could be interesting to take a step back and look at what characterizes ecclesiastical rites in North America. Although this may seem obvious to those of you who have been to their fair share of wakes, it is nonetheless important to define its components.
It is important to note that what is meant by the term “traditional funeral” may vary depending on multiple factors. What is traditional for one section of the population, may be alternative for another, based on their location, religion, culture, etc. A Jewish traditional funeral, for example, has different requirements than a Christian traditional funeral, and different denominations may also subscribe to different rules. A Christian traditional funeral in North America can differ wildly from a Christian traditional funeral in Latin America, for example. Furthermore, variations on the initial ceremony are often added as the population’s needs change, whether due to a shift in morals or legislation or simply to take advantage of technological advances. As the province I live in is heavily Catholic, I will focus on Roman Catholic ecclesiastical funeral rites.
As I have previously mentioned, belief in religion is heavily intertwined with funeral obsequies. Rites are often carried out in accordance with instructions provided in sacred texts, or passed down through oral traditions. As a result, each step of the funeral process has a basis in the religion in question’s faith. These days, however, similar rites are used in secular funerals, and thus are at least somewhat divorced from their initial meaning.
Roman Catholic rites are based off the Code of Canon Law, a document which is comprised of the systems and laws enforced by the Church, specifically in canons 1176-1185. One of the tenants of Catholicism is the belief that the souls of the faithful will rejoin their bodies and be resurrected upon Jesus’ return on Earth at the Last Judgement. It is for this reason that cremation was traditionally forbidden by the church. However, since the 1983 update to the Code of Canon Law, cremation is now allowed, unless “it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.” This allows for cremation due to death by infectious disease or financial matters, for example. However, the ashes must still be buried in sacred ground.
Traditionally, it was common for family and friends to build the casket, prepare the body (embalming was out of the question, obviously), and inter the deceased on church grounds. However, these days, funeral homes generally take care of the process, as strict laws regulating dead bodies and a shift in cultural values make this harder to do in many places.
The body of the faithful must necessarily be buried on consecrated grounds (Can. 1180). These grounds are blessed by a bishop that walks its boundaries, saying prayers to cast out evil. Before the advent of Christianity, it was illegal to bury the dead within a city. This changed in 752 A.D., when Saint Cuthbert obtained permission from the Pope to bury the dead on church grounds. It used to be common for the deceased to be buried within the church itself, until the “Assembly of Scotland” prohibited it (Intriguing History).
There are generally three components in a Catholic funeral: the Vigil, funeral mass, and burial.
The Vigil goes by many names—wake, viewing, visitation—and is usually performed at a funeral home. Other popular sites include the home, parish church, or chapel. This is the time when the deceased’s friends and family gather to pay their respects and offer condolences to the family. The deceased is displayed in a casket that can be either open or closed, depending on the body’s condition, or the family’s sensibilities.
In memoriam cards—cards featuring holy images on one side and information about the deceased on the other—are given out. The Vigil can last from a few hours to two days, and has the specific purpose of “attending to the soul of the dead one.” This means prayer is a critical aspect of the process. Praying the Rosary, a series of prayers recited using a rosary, is done in honour of the deceased. The immediate family is required to stay during the entire Vigil.
After the Vigil, the body is brought to a church as a bell tolls to mark the event. The funeral mass, or Requiem Mass, should generally be held at the deceased individual’s parish church (Can. 1179), but the Code allows for certain exceptions. It is performed by a priest. He is entitled to funeral dues to ensure the deceased is buried on sacred land. Should a parishioner request to be buried outside their parish, the priest is still payed a fourth of the dues (quarta funeralium) for the previous services he has rendered to the deceased parishioner. Although funeral dues are his right, a priest cannot demand payment, and is bound to perform his duties to his parishioners equally. As stipulated by the Canon, the poor cannot be “deprived of fitting funerals” (Can. 1181). However, priests can demand payment for any extra labour outside the usual rites.
The custom is to place the casket with the body’s feet positioned towards the alter if the deceased was a layman, or its head towards the altar if the individual was a priest or holy person (Tuccionare). Historians do not know where the custom originated, as medieval liturgists show that the feet of Christians should be pointed east in the casket, whether before the alter or during interment.
From New Advent:
“A man ought so to be buried”, he says, “that while his head lies to the West his feet are turned to the East, for thus he prays as it were by his very position and suggests that he is ready to hasten from the West to the East” (Ration. Div. Off., VII, 35).
The priest goes through a few prayers and leads some songs, sprinkles the coffin with holy water, swishes some incense around it, and asks God for the departed’s absolution to allow the deceased’s soul to avoid Purgatory.
After the Absolution, the body is taken to the grave. As previously mentioned, the bodies of the faithful must be buried on sacred ground and their feet must face east to await their resurrection.
Catholic funerals can only be performed on those who have been baptized. Traditionally, children who died before having been baptized could not have a Catholic funeral, but they were later allowed to if their parents intended to baptize them before they died (Can. 1183.2). Permission is also extended to baptized individuals from non-Catholic churches if their goals are not contrary to the religion, at the discretion of the local ordinary (Can. 1183.3).
Apostates, heretics, schismatics, the excommunicated, as well as those who have been cremated for anti-Christian reasons and other “sinners” should be denied an ecclesiastical funeral, unless they show signs of repentance before death (Can. 1184-1185).
Code of Canon Law: Latin-English Edition. Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1999.
Dunford, David. “Funeral Dues.” The Original Catholic Encyclopedia. Catholic Answers. Web. 31 May 2015.
HLB. “Bury the dead. Christian burials in context.” Intriguing History. Web. 6 May 2015.
“The Holy Rosary.” Catholic Online. Web. 31 May 2015.
Tucciarone, Tracy. “Burying the Dead: Catholic Funerals.” fisheaters.com, Web. 31 May 2015.
“U.S. Funeral Customs & Traditions- Funeral Traditions: The Funeral Source.” U.S. Funeral Customs & Traditions- Funeral Traditions: The Funeral Source. Ed. T.L. T.L. Hendricks. The Funeral Source. Web. 31 May 2015.