Order of Christian Funerals: A Celebration of Hope

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The following was a college essay written by Ben Duphiney. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

The Christian funeral––also known as the Mass of the Resurrection––is not a ritual of despair, but rather a celebration of hope and joy. The two words, funeral and celebration, may seem to contradict each other––especially with a worldly understanding of death. Many people try to avoid pain, suffering, and even death by investing in new treatment or the latest and greatest medical procedures. While life is to be lived well and healthily, the Christian embraces death as a necessary step in the journey towards union with God. Death is the final step on earth, which has been long awaited since baptism. While there is a true sadness present at funerals, it is overwhelmed by the hope and joy present in the liturgy; it is through the funeral liturgy that both the living and the dead are able to celebrate union with God. In this paper, I will focus on the symbols of the funeral liturgy, the psalms and Gospel, and the connection to Rites of Initiation (i.e. the Sacrament of Baptism).

“Liturgical signs and symbols affirming Christian belief and hope in the paschal mystery are abundant in the celebration of the funeral rites” and help assist the faithful to enter more deeply into that mystery.[1] Surprisingly, the symbols used during the funeral ritual are similar to those of the ritual of initiation: Baptism. At baptism, a candle is lit from the Paschal candle as a sign “of Christ’s undying presence among them, of his victory over sin and death…by virtue of their initiation.”[2] The same Paschal candle is lit as part of the funeral liturgy as a sign of “the night when the Church awaits the Lord’s resurrection and when new light for the living and the dead is kindled.”[3] Candles are often present during funerals or memorials because they remind us that Christ shines in the darkness; furthermore, there is a reverence that is present when candles are lit, such as during Mass or the sanctuary lamp present with each Tabernacle.

Another symbol is holy water, which “reminds the assembly of the saving waters of baptism.”[4] The coffin (and faithful) are blessed with holy water and are called to remember their own baptism. Through the waters of baptism, we die to ourselves and are reborn in Christ; the saving waters of baptism have cleansed the faithful, and prepare them for their journey throughout life. Used during the mass, water is essential as well! Water helps the faithful share in Christ’s divinity, as he humbled himself to share in our humanity.[5] From personal experience, water is a beautiful image of cleansing and rebirth. Each time I walk into a church, I am reminded of my baptism by blessing myself with holy water. Similarly, at a funeral, I am reminded of my own baptism and Christ’s call to new life with him when the priest blesses the coffin and the faithful.

Incense is also used at funerals, and it reminds the faithful of the sanctity of the body. As Christians, a corporal work of mercy is burying the dead, and showing reverence towards the body honors God’s creation. By using incense, the priest honors the vessel that holds the soul of the person; this also anticipates the resurrection of the body, where each person will have a new, perfected body. Incense––which is used to show reverence for the altar, the Gospel, and the faithful––is also used in the ritual of the funeral “as a sign of the community’s prayers for the deceased rising to the throne of God and as a sign of farewell.”[6] In addition to incense, a pall can be used to reverence the body by being placed over the urns. “A reminder of the baptismal garment of the deceased, the pall is a sign of the Christian dignity of the person”[7] and also aids the faithful in remembering their own white cloth that they received at Baptism. The pall is a simple white cloth that shows that we belong to Christ; as opposed to a flag or national symbol being placed over the tomb at a national funeral, the white cloth is plain and pure.

The symbols used at a funeral show a greater, hidden reality that is taking place. The Paschal Candle, holy water, incense, and pall assist the faithful to ascend to the great mystery of union with God in heaven. While symbols help assist the faithful, the readings are perhaps the most important parts of the rituals that guide the faithful––particularly the Psalms and Gospel reading.

The Psalms are a beautiful part of the Christian liturgy because “the movements of our own souls are reflected in the Psalms.”[8] The Psalms, located in the heart of the Old Testament, assist the Christian into praying with their feelings in a very honest and sincere way. The Psalms are used in almost every liturgy, including the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Mass. There is a special place for the Psalms in the funeral because there are many Psalms that can help the faithful mourn the dead. For example, Psalm 116 speaks of the eschatological reality of God saving his people from illness and death: “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Psalm 130, as another example, awaits the redemption of God’s people: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.[9] The Psalms are full of emotions and portray the entire human experience. Sometimes, the readings during Mass can be somewhat sterile or lacking emotion, such as narratives or a text of the specific details of the law. The Psalms, on the other hand, speak to the emotional side of humans, and thus play a powerful role in funerals. Not only is the content of the Psalms powerful and relatable, but the form is a conversation and prayer to God––with the faithful. As an entire people, the faithful respond to the Psalms during Mass, and during a funeral as well. The form is a prayer of the people to God; the coffin is present during the entire funeral, and so too it is present during the responsorial Psalm. While the Psalms speak about emotions and can fit many circumstances of human beings, many of them point back to Christ. The Psalms are an incarnate way to pray, because Christ himself probably knew many of the Psalms by heart and prayed them frequently.[10]

Following the responsorial Psalm is the heart of the liturgy of the word: the Gospel. The Gospel plays a central role in not only the funeral liturgy, but the Liturgy of the Mass in general because it speaks about the person of Christ who is the only way to the Father.[11] Many Gospels that are read during the funeral liturgy speak about Christ’s miracles of raising people from the dead, or the Resurrection of Christ.[12] Other Gospels speak about an eschetalogical readiness for Christ’s coming.[13] The Gospel read at my grandmother’s funeral was Christ raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:17-27). This passage is full of hope and places Christ at the center of death: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’” I remember many family members crying during the reading of this Gospel because it was easy to place my grandmother in the place of Lazurus––in the hope that Christ would raise her too. It is comforting to hear the words of Christ speaking the words of resurrection to those who are mourning; that happens not only with the characters in the Gospel, but to the people who are gathered at the funeral and are hearing the words of the Gospel.

In addition to the symbols and readings during the Mass, the funeral liturgy is connected to the rest of the Chrsitian life. The symbols of water, acandle, and awhite cloth are used during the rite of initiation: Baptism. It is the first sacrament––of which many receive during the first few weeks on earth. This sacrament of initiation uses the matter of water to communicate the cleansing grace that God has for each person. The individual dies to themselves and to sin and is reborn in new life.[14] The very purpose of Baptism prepares the Christian for life on earth to cooperate with grace from God; the entire person is ready to face life with all its joys and challenges. The funeral is at the other end of a person’s life, and is the final liturgy whereby the body is physically present with the rest of the living body of Christ. After this, the body will be buried––no longer “physically present” with family and friends; now, they are connected with the communion of Saints, which has members who are living and dead. The Christian has completed the circle of the Christian life, and is ready for what awaits them after death. The funeral mass is anticipated at the first Baptismal liturgy and death is a completion of the long awaited journey on earth.

The funeral liturgy is essential for the entire living body of Christ. As incarnate beings, we have emotions and strong feelings; death is something we will never understand and thus need time and space to process hardships and sadness. The funeral liturgy assists in the journey for the dead to enter into full union with God, and assists the living in appropriately mourning the harsh, unexplainable reality of death. The symbols used during the funeral help communicate a beautiful, invisible reality that is present among the living and the dead––the communion of Saints. The Psalms and Gospel are the words of God that are communicated to the faithful, and assis the faithful in participating in the greater prayer of the church. The liturgical ritual of the funeral is anticipated at the very beginning of the Christian life through the sacrament of Baptism. The funeral liturgy clings to the hope of everlasting life and communicates the joy that awaits each of us after the great mystery of death itself; life is to be kept a sacred reality, and death is to be kept a joyous mystery.

[1] Cover image: George. Scott painting

 Order of Christian Funerals – Introduction, 21

[2] Order of Christian Funerals – Introduction, 35

[3] Order of Christian Funerals – Introduction, 35

[4] Order of Christian Funerals – Introduction, 36

[5] c.f. Liturgy of the Eucharist, Preparation of the Gifts

[6] Order of Christian Funerals – Introduction, 37

[7] Order of Christian Funerals – Introduction, 38

[8] St. Athanasius

[9] My emphasis added for both Psalms.

[10] Taken from Psalms in the Liturgy slideshow, slide 21 (HSTR 102, Fr. Marco Benini)

[11] c.f. John 14:6

[12] Luke 7:11-17; Mark 16:1-6

[13] Luke 12:35-40

[14] c.f. John 3; Romans 6

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