Externals of the Catholic Church – Services for the Dead

Love of the departed and a desire to perpetuate their memory is to be found in every race and tribe, whether barbarous or civilized. The ancient countries of Asia are noted for their sepulchral monuments. The mighty pyramids of Egypt have been found to be tombs of dead monarchs. In distant India may still be seen the fairy-like Taj Mahal, perhaps the most beautiful edifice in the world, erected by a Hindoo king as a memorial and sepulchre for his beloved queen. Outside the walls of Jerusalem are the tombs of the great ones of Israel. Along the roads that radiate from the gates of Rome are the ruins of the final resting-places of patricians and of emperors.

All nations honor their dead. Whether enlightened by faith or groping in error, all strive to keep alive the memory of those whom death has taken away; all endeavor to manifest their undying love for those who have gone before. But the Catholic Church does more than this. She is a true mother to her children, and her solicitude extends not only to their perishable bodies, not only to their memory, which will endure but for a time, but to their immortal souls. Her faith teaches that the soul, when it has been separated from the body and has received its sentence from its Maker, may need help from its friends who remain on earth. Its time for meriting is over, but it may obtain merit through the prayers and good works of those who are still able to acquire merit, and particularly through the petitions of the Church in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Why the Church Honors Dead Bodies

But why does the Church pay so much attention to the perishable body, the lifeless clay, soon to be the food of worms? We can easily understand that she would be solicitous for the soul of the departed; but why should she pay honor to the body after the soul has left it?

Because the Church’s faith teaches that that body has been the temple of the Holy Ghost, and is to be reunited to the soul on the day of general judgment, to share its eternal destiny. The body is the instrument which the soul has used for God’s service. Without it the soul could not have attained to its happiness; and so the body, in the designs of God, is destined to participate in the bliss which He will give to the faithful soul. “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that in the last day I shall rise out of the earth, and I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God, Whom I myself shall see and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

A Tabernacle of God

The body has received the waters of Baptism, the chrism of Confirmation, the holy oil of Extreme Unction – and hundreds of times during its life it has been a living tabernacle of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And so, when death has come to the Catholic, the Church not only endeavors to help his soul, but she gives the last honors to his body. It is brought into the house of God in solemn procession, the adorable Sacrifice of the Mass is offered in its presence, the odor of sweet incense arises around it, holy water is sprinkled on it, and it is then laid away in ground that has been consecrated by the prayers of the Church.

Supplications for Mercy

How often we read in our daily papers the funeral orations delivered over those who are not Catholics – always laudatory, sometimes fulsome in their praises of the departed. There is never a word to indicate that he may have been a sinner, or that he may be in dire need of prayer by which the mercy of God may be implored in his behalf. Such is not the spirit of the Church in her services for her dead. She looks upon death as a punishment for sin; she remembers that nothing defiled can enter heaven; and so she treats the dead as souls in which some stain of sin may have been found by the all-seeing eye of God, or which may not have fully satisfied the debt of temporal punishment due for sins forgiven. She takes the salvation of no one as certain, be he Pope or king or peasant. Her funeral services are always a supplication for God’s mercy on the departed soul.

The Ceremonies before Mass

In our country it is not customary to carry out all the rules of the ritual concerning obsequies. We are not living in a Catholic land, and circumstances will not permit the doing of many things that are beautiful and instructive indeed, but are not essential to the Church’s ceremonial. In some parts of the world the custom is in vogue of beginning the funeral rites at the house where the death took place, and of continuing them in a solemn procession to the church; but among us these ceremonies are shortened, and generally take place at the church only.

It is the rule in some churches to have the clergy meet the body at the door and accompany it to the altar, where it is placed just outside the sanctuary. If the deceased was a lay person, his feet are pointed towards the altar, so that he is, as it were, facing it. If he was a priest, the body is turned the opposite way, the face towards the congregation, to signify that his work during life was to instruct the people from the altar.

Masses of Requiem

It is the wish of the Church that, whenever it is possible, her children should be buried with a Mass. This is not only the most solemn way in which they may receive her final blessing, but also the most efficacious for their soul’s salvation. The Mass which is celebrated on that occasion is full of touching symbolism and expressive prayer. The priest is garbed in sombre black, the color of death, and all ornaments are removed from the altar or shrouded in penitential wrappings. The veil before the tabernacle door is purple, the color of penance, for it would not be fitting to put black on the dwelling-place of our Saviour living in the Holy Eucharist. Around the coffin are black candlesticks, usually six in number.

Masses for the dead are much shorter than those said on other occasions. All parts expressive of joy are omitted; the whole intention of the Church is to pray for the departed one, that God’s judgment upon him may be merciful. And so there is no opening psalm of confidence and hope (“I will go unto the altar of God, of God Who rejoiceth my youth,” etc.). There is no Gloria, the joyful canticle of the angels. There are no Alleluias, such as we find in other Masses at most seasons of the year. There is no Credo, such as is said or sung in the Masses of Sundays and many festivals. When the words of the Agnus Dei are said, the priest does not ask the Lamb of God to “have mercy on us, but to “give eternal rest” to the faithful departed. Instead of the parting “Ite, missa est” (“Go, the Mass is over”), the priest prays “Requiescant in pace” (“May they rest in peace”). In these Masses there is no mention of any festival or saint’s day – nothing but the expression of the Church’s sorrow and hope, and the presenting of her fervent petitions for the eternal welfare of the departed.

The “Dies Irae”

The beautiful “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), one of the oldest of the rhyming metrical hymns of the Church, forms a part of the Mass for the dead. It has exercised the talents of the greatest musical composers and of translators in almost all languages. It is said to have been composed by Thomas of Celano, a companion of Saint Francis of Assisi, about the year 1200, and it sets before us a vivid picture of the Last Judgment – the coming of the Judge, the opening of the books, the anguish and remorse of the reprobates; and it concludes with a fervent prayer for the souls of the faithful: “Loving Lord Jesus, grant them rest. Amen.” All Masses for the dead which are said in black vestments are known as Requiem Masses, from the opining words of the Introit: “Requiem aetemam dona eis, Domine” – “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord.”

Kinds of Requiem Masses

Besides the Mass on the day of burial the Church has authorized Masses for the third and seventh day after death (although these are not generally celebrated in this country), and for the thirtieth day – usually called the “Month’s Mind.” All of these are very similar to the funeral Mass, except in the wording of some of the prayers. There is also an anniversary Mass, differing from the others, chiefly in the Epistle and Gospel read in it. On other occasions a Mass is used called the “Missa Quotidiana,” the “Daily Mass” of Requiem.

The Catafalque

Why does the Church use “an imitation of a coffin” at the commemorative Masses which are sung at certain times after the funeral? It seems peculiar to witness the incensing and the sprinkling of a pall-covered frame – to behold the solemn ritual of the Church carried out over it as though it contained a human body.

This catafalque, as it is called, has an interesting history. It originated at the time of the Crusades, or perhaps a little earlier. In those centuries it happened sometimes that a pious Christian knight went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or buckled on his armour to win back the Sepulchre of our Lord from the hated Saracen; and it happened also that in many instances the pious Christian knight did not come back. Pestilence or shipwreck or the Moslem scimitar put an end to his life, and it was not usually possible to bring his earthly remains back to his native land. But the Church wished to pay honor to his memory, and to celebrate for him the final rites of her liturgy; and so it became customary to erect in the church a huge funeral pile, decorated with emblems of mourning and sometimes bearing the armorial shield, knightly sword, helmet, spurs and other insignia of his rank.

Such was the origin of the catafalque; and when for any reason, at the present day, the body cannot be present at a funeral service, or at the celebration of anniversary or other solemn Masses, the same practice is adhered to. A representation of a coffin, suitably enshrouded in a sable pall, is placed before the altar, to typify the body of the deceased; and over it the Church performs the various ceremonies which would ordinarily take place over the remains of the departed one.

After the Mass

When the Mass is finished the celebrant lays aside the chasuble and maniple, puts on a black cope, and turns to the place where the body lies. The ensuing services are known as the “Absolution.” He reads a prayer: “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord,” asking the divine mercy on him who during his life was signed with the seal of the Most Holy Trinity. The choir then chants the “Libera” – “Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death on that dread day”; a most touching appeal of the soul trembling with fear before the tribunal of God. “I am made to tremble, and I fear, at the thought of judgment and the wrath to come.”

Then while the Pater Noster is being recited, the priest sprinkles the coffin with holy water, typifying the preservation of body and soul from the dominion of Satan; and he then incenses it on all sides, to express the honor that is due to the former temple of the Holy Ghost and tabernacle of Jesus Christ.

A prayer is then chanted, which is the same as that said in the early part of the Mass: “O God, to Whom it belongeth always to show mercy and to spare, we humbly beseech Thee for the soul of Thy departed servant N., whom Thou hast this day called out of the world, that Thou deliver it not into the hands of the enemy nor forget it forever, but command that it be received by Thy holy angels and taken to Paradise, its true country; that, as it has believed and hoped in Thee, it may not suffer the pains of hell, but have joy everlasting. Through Christ our Lord.- Amen.”

Going to the Grave

When the priest or priests accompany the body to the cemetery, as is done in some Catholic countries, a beautiful prayer is read while the procession is wending its way thither. “May the angels lead thee into Paradise; at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee and bring thee to Jerusalem the holy city. May the choirs of angels receive thee, and, with Lazarus once a beggar, mayest thou have eternal rest.”

The Benedictus, or Canticle of Zachary (“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel”) is then said or sung, with an antiphon formed of the consoling words of our Blessed Saviour to the sorrowing sisters of Lazarus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Me, although he be dead, shall live; and every one that liveth and believeth in Me shall not die forever.” This is followed by a prayer in which the divine mercy is besought for the deceased because he has had the desire of doing God’s will, although he may have deserved punishment for his misdeeds.

Such is the closing ceremony of the earthly career of a Catholic. We have all been present at it many times, and we all hope that it will be performed over us. The infidel would have us believe that he expects total annihilation when this life is over; the non-Catholic Christian, though he may imitate some of the rites of our Church, has no belief in any intercessory prayer for the dead, and generally contents himself with an indiscriminate laudation of the departed. The Catholic Church acts differently. She knows that the immortal soul, still a member of the Church of Christ, may be in suffering which can be relieved and shortened by the prayers of other members of that Church. And so she offers her public prayers and urges her children to pray in private for the souls of the faithful who have passed through the gates of death, teaching us that, although separation has come, it is but for a time, and that even while it continues there is a bond of union, the “Communion of Saints,” between us who are still on earth and our loved ones who “have gone before.”