Attending a Catholic funeral ceremony may prove a daunting prospect, particularly you are not a Catholic yourself and are therefore unfamiliar with the ceremony.

Catholic funeral order of service

A Roman Catholic funeral generally takes place as soon as possible after the death, ideally within a couple of days and certainly within a week. There is a strictly defined order of service to Catholic funeral proceedings, which is as follows.

Prayer Vigil/Wake

The Prayer Vigil is held on the eve of the funeral and may take place in church or at the family home. Friends and relatives gather together to have some time with the body of their loved one before the service. The casket may be closed or open for modern wakes, but open is the more traditional option.

Although there are prayers at a Catholic vigil and the atmosphere is sombre and reflective, the wake is not strictly formal and secular music and poetry may be played or read. Mourners share memories of the deceased and prepare themselves for the funeral service the following day.

Modern Catholic wakes vary depending on the ethnicity and personality of the deceased and their family.

The Funeral

A Requiem Mass is the most common type of funeral for Catholics and includes the ceremony of Holy Communion. This is performed in order to fully commemorate the Resurrection and the spiritual resurrection of the deceased’s soul.

Black and white vintage image of a sad mourning angel on a cemetery with a diffused background
Black and white vintage image of a sad mourning angel on a cemetery with a diffused background

It is not compulsory to have a full Requiem Mass at a Catholic funeral, and a Funeral Outside Mass is a common decision for those planning funerals where many of the guests will not be Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church encourages a full mass, however.

Regardless of whether or not the funeral incorporates Holy Communion, some elements of a Catholic funeral are universal.

The dress code for a traditional Catholic funeral is very formal. Men should wear a black suit and women a black dress or black suit and smart shoes. It is appropriate for mourners to bring gifts of flowers.

The priest will greet the coffin at the church door and sprinkle it with holy water, then precedes the mourners to the altar where the coffin will be covered with a white pall.

The service consists of Bible readings, gospels and psalms, which may be read by the priest but often by friends and family. Traditional Catholic funeral hymns are sung. Non-Catholic mourners may sing along if they are familiar, or simply stand and remain silent to show respect.

There may also be readings related to the deceased’s life, achievements or role in the parish, though eulogies are not traditionally part of a funeral mass and may be omitted, depending on how orthodox or contemporary the church.

If the funeral is a full Requiem Mass then Holy Communion is offered at this stage. If not, final prayers will be offered to bid farewell to the deceased’s soul. More holy water will be sprinkled on the coffin and incense will be burned. The mourners recite the Lord’s Prayer before leaving.

Burial is the most traditional Catholic practice, although cremation has also been permitted in Roman Catholicism since the 1960s. Burial of the cremains is ideal, but it is acceptable to entomb them within a columbarium or bury the ashes at sea provided they are sealed inside their container. Scattering ashes is strictly prohibited due to the Christian necessity of keeping the deceased’s remains together.

Reception

A Catholic reception can be held at the deceased’s home or that of their family members. It may also be held at another venue, such as a pub, restaurant or town hall.

The reception is a far less formal affair than the funeral ceremony itself and often includes photo albums, music the deceased liked and other things that remember their life.

The mood of a reception is generally more lighthearted and celebratory – alcohol may be consumed and there will be food. Mourners may contribute with gifts of food and alcohol, or with flowers if they did not bring them to the funeral service.

Like the wake, the reception is individualised and reflects both the deceased and their nearest and dearest.

How long is a Catholic funeral?

Those who are not part of the Roman Catholic faith might wonder – how long is a Catholic funeral? The answer largely depends on whether or not the ceremony incorporates Holy Communion.

A Catholic Funeral Outside Mass is generally between 30 and 40 minutes. With the addition of a full Requiem Mass, the funeral service can easily last for an hour and is sometimes as long as an hour and a half, depending on how many people are reading and for how long.

If the reception is being held immediately afterwards, mourners may also wish to factor in time to have a drink or snack and speak to the family in order to express their condolences.