The Catholic Church is one of oldest religious institutions in the world and boasts a worldwide following of around 1.29 billion people. It has had a major impact on western thought, society, culture and politics, and has shaped the way many individuals think about death. Here, we take a look at the religion’s beliefs concerning death and explore the Catholic funeral customs.
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Catholics believe that each person’s soul is immortal and that, at the moment of death, the body and soul separate. While the body, devoid of the spirit that animated it, begins to decompose, the soul is taken to be judged by God. It is then either granted eternal life in Heaven or damned to an eternity in Hell.
However, not all of those granted access to Heaven are quite ready to pass through the pearly gates. Those who have lived a just enough life to reach Heaven but that are still due punishment for some as yet accounted for sin, spend time in Purgatory. Purgatory is a temporary state that purges the soul of sin and fully prepares an individual for Heaven.
Catholic funeral customs
Catholicism maintains its own distinct traditions that differentiate it from other Christian traditions. When death is imminent, a priest is usually called to administer the dying person’s last rites. Traditionally, there are three stages to a Catholic funeral. The vigil – where friends and family gather to watch over the deceased’s body or cremated ashes and pray that their soul reaches heaven. The funeral mass – which takes place at the church and involves the casket or urn being carried to the front of the church and a memorial service led by the local priest. Finally, there is the burial – where the remains of the deceased are taken to their burial place and a priest commits them to the Earth.
Etiquette and other customs
Catholicism is a large and widespread religion that can differ from region to region and that is also open to doctrinal differences. This means that what’s acceptable in a Catholic funeral on one occasion, may not be on another. For instance, in some Catholic communities, cremation is not acceptable. However, in recent years, Catholic religious authorities have shifted their position and many churches won’t have a problem with cremation.
The Catholic Church holds no objection to organ donation, as mainstream religious doctrine supports the idea that once brain function ceases, the soul has departed the body. Likewise, embalming the deceased’s body is common practice if a vigil is to be held and the Church is in no way opposed to embalming.
As a non-Catholic attending a Catholic funeral, you can take part in the entire ceremony but won’t be expected to take Holy Communion, as it’s a practice reserved for those of Catholic faith. After the funeral service, it is common practice for a less formal memorial event to take place at a relative’s home, a pub or another local venue. However, such an event is not a formal part of the service and not all Catholic funerals will end with one.