Graveside at a Catholic funeral?
June 23, 2009 1:09 PM   Subscribe

Writing a funeral scene. Am familiar only with Jewish funerals. What happens, graveside, at a Catholic funeral? Prayers? How is the casket carried, and covered with dirt? Any specific rituals I should know about? If any knows particularly what happens at a Catholic funeral in France this would be even more helpful.
posted by Wittamer to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total)
Here's some information about Catholic funerals, specifically from a Catholic perspective. There are essentially three parts: the vigil (also called the wake), the requiem mass, and the actual burial. (There's usually an informal after-burial gathering, too, but they're not officially part of the ritual.) The specific details about what happens graveside is here.
posted by scody at 1:21 PM on June 23, 2009

No idea about customs particular to France, but at the American Irish Catholic ceremonies I've been to, the casket is really only carried by pallbearers from the church to the hearse (I imagine that graveyard assistants carry it from the hearse to the grave, but I'm not sure). The casket is lowered into the grave by some sort of lowering mechanism while the mourners stand around it, and sometimes people throw handfuls of earth on top of it. Usually there is some sort of Bible passage or the Burial Rite read aloud, either by a priest or by a family member.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:26 PM on June 23, 2009

Daughter of a Catholic church secretary/planner here (and Catholic myself).

There is usually a rosary meditation held the night before, where people pray the holy rosary in front of either the open or closed casket.

At the funeral itself, there is a celebration of the Mass, with special funeral rites included. One important piece of these rites is the inclusion of incense around the casket (as well as specific prayers to all the saints). The rising of the incense symbolizes the intentions of the prayers rising to heaven as well as the soul of the departed.

At the graveside, the casket is usually carried by pallbearers just like at any other funeral, and then prayers are said (the Our Father, and another, which escapes me) before the casket is lowered to the ground.

There is a lot of variation of customs depending on what the family wants (throwing in dirt, flowers, saying special prayers, playing music, etc.), but the liturgy of the Mass and the funeral rites are the central components.

This site has some pretty comprehensive info for the specifics.
posted by moojoose at 1:28 PM on June 23, 2009

IDK about France, but at the actual graveside at a Catholic funeral, basically what happens is:

- Everyone gets there from the Church in a parade of cars after the requiem mass (the wake is usually on the two prior days, usually with two sessions, like 4-6pm and 7-9pm say. The closest people go to all, and the immediate family has to be at all basically to receive everyone. After the last one people sometimes have a reception or go for a drink.)
- The back the hearse up pretty close to the grave. Usually there's some sort of webbing thing over the grave that lowers the coffin in. The pall bearers take the coffin from the hearse and place it on the webbing, over the grave.
- There is usually some sort of awning set up, but most people don't fit under it. The priest stands under it. It's generally the same priest from the requiem, although sometimes the requiem has cocelebrants, this part only has one priest.
- Sometimes there are chairs and people sit. Sometimes, you stand.
- Everyone looks down and clasps their hands. Most people are wearing sunglasses.
- The priest gives a final blessing.
- People cry. Sometimes there's music.
- Sometimes people are invited to place a rose on the coffin, or the coffin is lowered into the grave and people are invited to throw a rose or a handful of dirt down on the coffin.
- Sometimes they don't actually lower the coffin while you are standing there.
- There are a lot of other variations, for example just because its a Catholic funeral, doesn't mean its not a veteran's funeral as well. An old Catholic man dying in France today has a pretty good chance of being a WWII vet. So the military sends some veterans or active duty soldiers in dress uniforms. They have a ritual where they fold a flag and put it on top of the coffin.
- Everyone drives away. Usually to some sort of reception, but not everyone goes to that.

It's pretty much like every funeral on American TV. I've been to well more than my fair share of Catholic funerals, and other than their being a Catholic mass, the graveside part doesn't seem different from what I see on TV and in movies.
posted by jeb at 1:32 PM on June 23, 2009

You need to rent some Sopranos DVDs. There's a very-Catholic funeral in every other episode.
posted by rokusan at 1:37 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been to many a Catholic funeral, but I have no idea what happens at Catholic funerals in France because my Archdiocese of Boston experiences are less "universal" than you'd think. Catholicism is centrally controlled and there are aspects that are globally consistent, but there is a surprising amount of latitude granted to local custom and tradition... so if you're keen on realism, you need to know that what happens in France isn't necessarily what happens in America but-in-French.
posted by moxiedoll at 1:38 PM on June 23, 2009

I can speak mostly about my experiences as someone who grew up Catholic in New England....this may be of help. When someone who is Catholic passes away, there are three things that happen:

1. The wake. This is typically at the funeral home, though sometimes it can be at the deceased's home. The wake can be open or closed casket. This is for anyone and everyone to come and attend. The immediate family of the deceased, often including grandchildren, and anyone else the family wants stands in a line next to the casket. The people attending the wake pay their respects to each individual family member and then proceeds to say goodbye to the deceased. There is a bench in front of the casket for prayer. This is a very important part of the Catholic tradition. Some wakes are rowdy and loud (my Irish grandfather's wake was) while some are quiet vigils where you may even fear to speak (my Italian grandmother's wake was). After this the people attending will either stay and speak with others, remember the deceased or otherwise catching up, or they may choose to leave. At some point near the end of the "visiting hours," the priest will come in and say a rosary with the family. There may be a reading. The priest will offer a blessing and that will signify the end of the wake.

2. The actual funeral mass. This is pretty typical. Readings. Eulogy. Communion. Benediction. Announcement of the reception after the graveside visit. This is also usually open to anyone and everyone unless the family requests otherwise, but not everyone who went to the wake will come to the funeral. The funeral will typically be smaller than the wake in the number of people attending.

3. Burial and Committal. This takes place usually right after the funeral mass these days, though sometimes it might take place later --- for example, if it's winter and you're in a place where the ground is too frozen to dig into, this may be delayed. It includes a short scripture verse by the priest, the prayer of committal, intercessions, the Lord's Prayer, a blessing, and the lowering of the casket, --- and it is during this that the dirt is thrown on the casket. After this the priest will usually leave and the immediate family will place flowers on the casket, followed by those friends and family who came to the gravesite. Then the women (usually) may take a flower from one of the displays (see below about flowers) to take with them --- often the funeral director will have these at hand already to give to the women as they leave. It is important to note that this is usually reserved for family and close friends, though again it can be very individual.

After the committal, the family will head to the site of the reception. People from the funeral who didn't go to the graveside will likely have already arrived. The reception will last a few hours and there's no formality to it, though the priest may say a grace and blessing over the food before eating.

Okay. Flowers. The flower displays that are at the wake will be transferred to the funeral and then to the graveside --- not all of course, but the one's that the family bought that will say "Mother" or "Father" or "Loving Wife." These are the big ones that are often on easel like racks. The rest will be brought to the home of the deceased by the funeral director within the next two days at most.
posted by zizzle at 1:40 PM on June 23, 2009

I was brought up Catholic and whilst I'm an atheist I've been to many Catholic funerals. I'm sure each country is slightly different, but the three parts of the wake, the mass and the burial/committal are pretty much the same. In Spain the funeral often takes place within a day of death, which means that everything happens very quickly. I don't know whether this is the case in France or not, but I'm guessing that if it is it's regional. It is of course typical to have a reception, but these can range from small family affairs to something bigger.
posted by ob at 1:50 PM on June 23, 2009

I have my doubts as far as these American Catholic funerals being representative of Catholic funerals in France, if for no other reason than I have yet to see a Catholic funeral on American television that is like any of the half-dozen Catholic funerals I've been to here in Poland in the past 5 years. The exact events depend on a few factors, including the family traditions, cemetery customs and if the burial is in an urban or rural setting.

Here in Warsaw, burial is usually within 4-5 days of death. For a small fee, a prayer at the church of the deceased will usually be said during mass, before the burial. The family hangs up notices of death on bulletin boards outside the deceased's home, place of work, church and any hangouts. My grandmother took part in a communal garden, when she passed that was the first place I went.

On the day, the closest family meets at the mortuary or (more common) morgue before the coffin is closed for the last time. They meet again at the church for mass, sometimes at the deceased's church, but in larger cities - where the cemetery itself is usually on the city's outskirts - they tend to be organized at a church at the cemetery itself. Chairs are placed in front of the altar in the church, for immediate family. Flowers are placed around the coffin before the ceremony.

Afterward, morticians will place the coffin into a hearse or onto an electric cart, and pack the largest wreaths and bouquets along side it. A procession forms behind the coffin, with the priest and closest family members walking up front. When the procession arrives at the grave site, the coffin is lowered into the ground by the morticians, a final prayer is said. Speeches might be given, but I've only seen it happen once. The priest says a few final words and tosses a handful of dirt onto the casket. People toss dirt onto the casket and slowly disperse. The immediate family stays at the grave site the longest, until the burial is complete. The grave is covered with flowers from the funeral, which is sometimes comedic in appearance.

There is often a reception of some sort after the funeral, only for invited guests. Food and alcohol (vodka, always vodka) are served - a small wake of sorts. Other guests will often scatter around the cemetery, visit the graves of other lost ones.
posted by jedrek at 2:14 PM on June 23, 2009

but there is a surprising amount of latitude granted to local custom and tradition

I'd like to emphasize this by noting one difference I've seen from most of the other descriptions here of the two (Midwest US) Catholic funerals I've been to in recent years. Although the overall structure (wake/Mass/graveside service) are the same as others have outlined here, and many of the details are the same, at the ones I've been to the graveside service ends with the coffin still above the ground. The grave is already dug, but the coffin is held above it by the structure which will eventually be used to lower it into the grave. In this variant, the coffin is lowered into the ground and buried by cemetery staff after the mourners leave.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:25 PM on June 23, 2009

In the US lillies are the flowers associated with funerals but I heard once that in France it was some other kind of flower. As visitors we were not to bring them to dinner parties or anything 'cos it would look weird. If anyone knows what type of flower that is it may be helpful. Also, Catholics use a lot of incense at funerals to "annoint" the casket, which is usually covered in a white/gold pall to represent baptism and eternal life.
posted by ShadePlant at 2:27 PM on June 23, 2009

Adding to DevilsAdvocate, the Catholic services I have been to in Chicago (4 of them so far) are not even graveside, but in a chapel on the cemetery grounds. The workers carry the casket to the grave and bury it after everyone leaves. Otherwise, it was the same structure.
posted by Tchad at 3:01 PM on June 23, 2009

The question of any Catholic liturgy is a tricky one: is this funeral and the associated to rites to be the typical "serious" one where everyone is mournful and prays for the soul of the deceased? Or is it like most funerals these days, where the deceased is practically beatified on the spot ("Pappy, who hasn't darkened the door of this church in fifty years, is in a 'better place' now . . ." etc.), regardless of their faith and the life they lived? I ask because, as you can imagine, these two liturgies will look very, very different.

If you want the former--i.e., the typical "Hollywood Catholic" liturgy (and IMHO, almost always the appropriate one)--stick with the FishEaters site for the text of the rite. For the rubrics, you will need to find a sacramentary or ritual book that contains the Rite of Christian Burial (see).

Since local customs dictate a lot of the "gap filling" of ceremonial--and especially owing to the liturgical climate in much of France in which many of the rubrics of ceremonies are neglected--you will really want to do some research on this or it's going to look stupid. I.e., maybe the French don't put flowers, or maybe they do? Or maybe they throw handfuls of dirt on the coffin, or maybe they don't? None of that stuff is laid down explicitly in the funeral rites, so you need to find out for sure. DON'T analogize to an American Catholic or Jewish or whatever burial.

Sounds like fun!
posted by resurrexit at 3:05 PM on June 23, 2009

Catholic funerals in Toronto, I don't think I've ever seen a wake. There is a viewing the night before the mass at a funeral home. (Is that the same as a wake)?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:18 PM on June 23, 2009

I'll third DevilsAdvocate and Tchad that at all the Catholic funerals I've ever been to, I've never seen the casket be lowered into the ground and sometimes the ceremony is at a chapel. This facet is probably local or cemetery custom or policy. The wakes and funeral masses have been far more uniform in my experience although wakes often don't have a lot of formal structure. I would imagine that the Catholic Archdioceses of Paris would probably have published information somewhere about the mass. Pre and Post mass events and traditions are likely to be more localized.
posted by mmascolino at 3:23 PM on June 23, 2009

The graveside flower in France is the chrysanthemum. When I bought some for my apartment, visitors thought I was weird.
posted by yeti at 3:31 PM on June 23, 2009

The best news is that because Catholicism is universal by definition, as long as they conform to a few central pieces of dogma, services like funerals can vary almost infinitely. Local/regional traditions and the wishes of the family take precedence over any orthodoxy.

They don't even require a Mass; it's becoming more and more common in Australia for clergy to give memorial services, especially for non-practicing Catholics that don't involve Eucharist.

FYI, in many parts of modern Europe an in-ground burial is surprisingly rare. In Spain, for instance, it's more usual for the dead to lie in above-ground mortuaries for some years, and graveyards as North Americans know them are few.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:27 PM on June 23, 2009

Catholic funerals in small towns in Mexico are different from the ones at big cities. There are already good descriptions here, I will just tell what was different in one of the biggest small town funerals I've been to.

My grandmother was a devout Catholic, popular in her town. On the third day the casket was transported to the church, where there were dozens of huge floral arrangements leaning against the portico, with large ribbons with the name of the senders. People try to outdo each other with the size of the arrangements, most were so big they where mounted on wooden tripods, like this. It looked like a mafia funeral.

While we were in mass, the flowers were taken to the graveyard. She was popular enough that there was a waiting list for pallbearers. Some where very old men, so they took 1 or 2 minute turns. Many of the people where crying during the procession, many were praying, lots of clutched rosaries. The walk to the cemetery is short, otherwise they would have carried the casket from the church to the hearse and then from the cemetery entrance to the grave.

All the flower arrangements were waiting by the open crypt. My mother had gone there earlier to make sure the inside of the crypt was clean. The casket was put on stilts just outside the open door to the crypt, the priest did his thing and left, people started filing out. The last to leave where the family.

After we all left workers put the casket in its niche and sealed it with bricks and mortar.

Something I have seen in every small town Catholic funerals is
lots of children running around, playing, eating and having lots of fun. They are only expected to be serious during mass and around the casket. It was great fun as a kid to play hide and seek among the crypts and graves.
posted by dirty lies at 5:42 PM on June 23, 2009

- There are a lot of other variations, for example just because its a Catholic funeral, doesn't mean its not a veteran's funeral as well. An old Catholic man dying in France today has a pretty good chance of being a WWII vet. So the military sends some veterans or active duty soldiers in dress uniforms. They have a ritual where they fold a flag and put it on top of the coffin.

Further to the above, obviously not knowing the character or setting details for your writing - if the deceased is a local "celebrity" (eg. mayor, ex-mayor, former civil service bigwig, decorated veteran, recipient of the Legion d'honneur etc. etc.) then there may well be a procession from the wake to the funeral service of dozens to hundreds of people on foot through the village / town.

I've seen this myself at least a couple of times a year in 3 years of living in small (2000 - 4000) person towns in the Alps. One was for a local paragliding instructor who died in a freak accident who was simply well known and well liked in the community.
posted by protorp at 12:38 AM on June 24, 2009

Thanks, everyone. Very helpful for the general structure. Thanks also to those who shared details of the ceremonies for loved ones.
posted by Wittamer at 8:18 AM on June 24, 2009

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