Many Catholics don’t have any experience with the rites and customs relating to death and burial until a loved one dies. The round of visits to the funeral home, cemetery, and Rectory at such an emotional time can leave your head spinning. Planning prayers and the Mass, programs, holy cards, music, pallbearers, and schedules are necessary chores. For some people the learning curve starts with some basics that even faithful Catholics are unsure about.
Before Death – when someone is known to be dying, please remember to call the Priest to administer the sacraments. Hopefully the sick person is conscious and can participate in the prayers and sacraments. Once a person dies, the priest cannot administer the sacraments. Only prayers for the deceased can be offered. If possible the sick person should receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, absolution from sins and the Apostolic Pardon, and the last Holy Communion (Holy Viaticum).
The Mass of Christian Burial (funeral Mass) – if possible, Catholics should be buried with a Mass. The Mass is the perfect prayer as it makes present the redeeming sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. The deceased is in need of this prayer for the forgiveness of sins and the intercession of the saints to lead them, we pray, into Paradise. The Mass is the fullest expression of the Church’s prayer for the departed. It applies the saving Passion, Death and Resurrection, which the Mass makes present, to the redemption of the soul of the departed person.
Burial or cremation? Traditionally the body is brought to Church for Mass and then buried in the ground or a vault to await the resurrection of the body. Until recently there was the concern that cremation implicitly denied bodily resurrection and was prohibited by the Church. Since this danger is lessened in today’s society, the local bishop may now allow not only the burial of the cremains, but cremains may now be brought into Church for the funeral Mass in the Archdiocese of Washington. Cremains are to be interred directly into the earth or placed in a columbarium. Cremains of Catholics are never to be scattered or divided in any form. The body, even when cremated, is to be treated with the utmost respect as it awaits its reunion with the soul on the Last Day.
Where to be buried? Catholics have always been encouraged to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. The ground there has been blessed, is in the perpetual care of the Church, and such cemeteries regularly have Masses offered for the happy repose of the souls of the deceased buried there. Catholics may be buried in non-Catholic or secular cemeteries, but the site should be blessed during the burial rite. Saint Peter’s Church is fortunate to have its own cemetery and Archdiocesan cemeteries (Resurrection in Clinton and Our Lady, Queen of Peace in St. Mary’s County) are nearby to assist families. We are also looking at making provisions for cremated remains to be interred in a columbarium in our own Parish cemetery in the coming months.
Plan well so that the spiritual as well as material matters related to death and dying are attended to. And to those who have died, may the Lord grant eternal light and peace.