Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XXVIII. The Burial Service

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

It is much to be regretted that a large number of Catholics do not better understand the many claims which the Church has on her children of being called their mother. And it is equally to be regretted that these same children are the principal sufferers. Let us, then, pause for a few moments and reflect on this point, especially in its bearing on the funeral ceremonies among Christians.

Love of the departed is deeply seated in man’s nature: and there is no people, whether barbarous or civilized, whether enlightened by the true faith or groping in the darkness of error, but honors its dead. The imperishable pyramids of Egypt are sepulchral monuments, and the dead of the same nation are found as mummies after a period of more than three thousand years. So, too, sepulchral monuments are met with throughout the entire East, dating back to a time long anterior to the beginning of the Christian era. The cities of the dead in ancient Greece are pointed out even in our day, where the dust of heroes has returned to its parent dust for more than twenty centuries; while the cromlechs of Ireland and other countries of western Europe, once inhabited by the Celts, stood for ages before the glad tidings of the Gospel awakened those peoples to a new life. But it was left to the Christian Church to pay a fitting homage to the departed, and this with regard to both the soul and the body : to the soul, because faith teaches that it is immortal, and can be assisted in its spiritual necessities by those whom it leaves behind: to the body, because the same faith teaches that it was once the temple of the Holy Ghost, and is destined hereafter to be reunited to the soul after the General Judgment, to share its eternal destiny.

We appreciate everything according to our estimation of its value. What more noble than man! When God formed the various orders of the visible creation, what ever their excellence, He simply said, as we read in the Sacred Scriptures, “Let them be made, and they were made;” but when He was about to form the masterpiece of His infinite wisdom, power, and love, He could find no model worthy of the noble work He proposed, and He said: “Let us make man to our image and likeness.”1 And He endowed him with an immortality like His own in this, that he cannot die; but unlike His in this, that man’s immortality is dependent, while God’s is absolute. This is true, as has just been said, not only of the soul, but also of the body. And both the mercy and justice of God shine forth admirably in this; for, as the body was the instrument by which the soul was greatly assisted in the service of God, it is but just that it should share in the soul’s reward. Without the body the soul could not, according to the designs of God, have attained to its happiness; the body then should share with the soul in that happiness. Such is the divine decree. How noble is the human body! Even a pagan poet was struck with admiration in contemplating it.2 So also holy Job declares: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and 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 my self shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”3 The words of St. Paul are also well calculated to impress upon Christians the sanctity of their bodies.4 He writes: “Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? But if any man violate the temple of God, him shall God destroy: for the temple of God is holy, which you are.” Again: “Know you not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I take the members of Christ and make them the members of a harlot? God forbid. . . . Or know you not that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own. For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body.”

In no ceremony of the Church does the respect which she pays to the bodies of her children shine forth so admirably as in her funeral obsequies. Mindful of the dignity of the human body, she has the infant brought, to the church at as early a day as possible after its birth, that it may be born again of water and of the Holy Ghost; its breast is then anointed with the holy oil, as we have seen in the essay on the Holy Oils, that it may ever bear the thought of God in its heart; on the back it is anointed between the shoulders, that it may learn to bear the sweet yoke of Christ; and the top of its head is anointed, after the infusion of water has blotted out original sin, that it may be entirely consecrated to God. No sooner does it begin to live than it begins to live for God, verifying the words of St. Paul, that Christ died for all, that those who live may live only for Him. Again, in confirmation, when the child has grown to youth, and is called upon to battle more fiercely with the enemies of its salvation, it is once more consecrated, by having the sign of the cross marked on its forehead with the holy oil, that it may bear fearlessly before the world the standard under which it has vowed to do battle. And, finally, when the time comes for it to bid adieu to its earthly habitation, its senses are signed with the holy oil to remove the remains of sin which they may have been instrumental in committing. The body is also nourished with the Most Holy Sacrament, so that Almighty God, not satisfied with forming it in a more noble mould than that of any other creature, visits it frequently during life to consecrate it more fully to Himself. Would that this truth were more frequently remembered; then fewer would sin against their bodies as well as against their souls. Conscious of this innate dignity, the Church does well in honoring the body even after the soul has departed. It is brought into the church in solemn procession, the adorable sacrifice of the Mass is offered in its presence, the fumes of incense ascend around it, and the saving dews of holy water are shed upon it before it is carried to its last resting-place. The ground also in which it is to return to dust is sanctified by the solemn prayers of the Church.

The Church looks upon death as the punishment of sin;5 and, remembering that nothing defiled can enter heaven, she treats her deceased members as persons upon whose souls at least slight stains of sin may have been found by the all-searching eye of God at the hour of death; or who may not have fully satisfied the debt of temporal punishment due for forgiven offences. For this reason her funeral services are supplicatory. She does not canonize the dead, as it were, on the spot, or perform a pagan apotheosis upon them, regardless of the sort of lives they may have led, as is too often done outside the Church. On the contrary, she banishes, or desires to banish—for there are unfortunately found Catholics who would fain cling to irreligious and pagan Customs— all signs of paganism from their obsequies, and she covers their remains in the burial casket only with a plain, black pall. No Christian who is possessed of a lively faith can absolutely rejoice in the death of anyone who has attained the use of reason, as if he were already in the fruition of the beatific vision, no matter what may have been the purity of his life. No one knows with absolute certainty whether he is deserving of love or hatred; and St. Paul, who declared that he was not conscious of any fault, did not, for all that, regard himself as justified.6 Our hope must always be seasoned with a salutary fear.

The Church has a separate ceremony, however, for the interment of those little innocents who die before they have come to the use of reason. In their case the ritual recommends that, besides the white vestments with which the priest is clothed, a crown of flowers or of odoriferous herbs be placed on the coffin, as a symbol of the purity of both the body and the soul of the deceased. And with the chant of psalms of joy, and the recitation of prayers suggestive of the virginal purity of the departed and radiant with Christian hope, the tender remains are consigned to their final resting-place.

Since, then, in the good pleasure of God we are all destined to return to dust before we can rise to immortality, it will be both instructive and encouraging for us to pass briefly in review the services which are to usher us into the unseen world.

Let us suppose a person dead, and about to be carried to the church for the funeral obsequies. The entire ceremonial, it is true, is not, as a rule, carried out among us, owing to the fact that we are not living in a Catholic country, and must be influenced by circumstances in this as in many other things not essential. The remains are not usually accompanied from the house where death took place, but are met at the door of the church by the priest. Sometimes, too, they are not met at the door, but are carried to the foot of the altar, where the priest performs the part of the ceremony appropriate to that place. Nor is it a uniform custom to attend the funeral to the cemetery; for, as was remarked in the essay on the Asperges, the circumstances in which most of the early missionaries were placed rendered it difficult, and often impossible, to carry out the entire ceremonial of the Church in many of her sacred functions. But without further preface or apology, we shall take up the funeral ceremony as it is found in the ritual, and make such comments on it as will be thought interesting and instructive.

The priest, vested in surplice and black stole—and in a black cope, if the church has one—at the house where the remains are, begins the solemn ceremony by sprinkling the body with holy water; he then recites an antiphon and the psalm De profundis (the 129th), at the conclusion of which and of the Requiem æternam, —which always in funeral ceremonies takes the place of the Glory be to the Father, etc., recited after each psalm on other occasions,—he repeats the antiphon. The remains are then taken up by the pall-bearers, and the procession moves toward the church. The priest, having recited an antiphon, begins the psalm Miserere (the 50th), and. if the distance is considerable, at the conclusion of it he continues with what are called the Gradual Psalms, which are fifteen in number, and begin with the 127th. If there are other priests present they recite the psalms in alternate verses with the officiating clergyman. On arriving at the door of the church the antiphon is repeated, and the chanters—if there are any—and the officiating priest sing certain versicles and responses; but in most churches the choir has to take the place of the chanters properly so called. The Mass is then celebrated, unless the Office of the Dead is first to be recited.

At the conclusion of the Mass the celebrant lays aside the chasuble and maniple, and putting on the black cope, proceeds to the foot of the altar, and turns to the remains. While the choir is chanting the Libera—which is a most pathetic appeal of the soul, trembling with fear before the judgment-seat for mercy at that awful hour—he reads a prayer beseeching God to deal mercifully with His departed servant, and extend His grace to him who during life was signed with the seal of the Most Holy Trinity. He also recites the Libera. The celebrant then puts incense into the censer; the chanters (or the celebrant, where there are no chanters) sing the Kyrie eleison, the choir answering Christe eleison. The priest then repeats a second Kyrie, and intones the Pater Noster, which he continues in silence while he passes twice around the coffin, first sprinkling it with holy water, and then incensing it, two acolytes with candles and one between them with the processional cross standing at the head of the body the while. Then follow a number of versicles and responses appropriate to the ceremony, and the prayer: “O God, whose property is always to have mercy and to spare, we humbly beseech Thee for the soul of Thy servant N., which Thou hast this day commanded to depart from this world, that Thou wouldst not deliver it into the hands of the enemy, nor forget it unto the end; but command it to be received by Thy holy angels, and conducted into its true country; that as in Thee it has hoped and believed, it may not suffer the pains of hell, but may take possession of eternal joys. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” The body is then borne to the cemetery, the priest in the meantime singing or reading the antiphon: “May the angels lead thee into Paradise; at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once a beggar, mayest thou have eternal rest.” Here there is a prayer for the blessing of the grave, if the cemetery is not consecrated. But whether the body is immediately taken to the cemetery, or is left in the church foe a time, for example, that the relatives and others may take a last view of it, the canticle of holy Zachary, commonly called the Benedictus,7 is sung or read, with the antiphon: “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in Me, although he be dead, shall live: and everyone that liveth and believeth in Me shall not die forever.”8 This, with the following prayer and the versicles before and after it, must, according to the ritual, never be omitted: “Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee, this mercy unto Thy servant deceased, that having desired to do Thy will he may not suffer in return for his deeds. And as by the true faith he was joined to the multitude of the faithful here below, so may Thy tender mercy give him a place above among the angelic choirs. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” The priest retires from the cemetery reciting the De profundis in a low tone.

How radiant with hope is not this important ceremony in which we all occasionally take part during life, and which we sincerely trust will be performed over us in death, as our mortal remains are borne to their last resting-place? It passes admirably between the two extremes of the feeling of total annihilation, which the infidel would fain have us believe he considers awaits him, on the one hand; and on the other the apotheosis; which is so commonly and indiscriminately pronounced on the dead among too many of the sects. It is a sweet consolation to the living, and at the same time an exhortation to the practice of the noblest acts of Christian charity, those of offering prayers and good works for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed. It teaches the bereft that their separation is only for a time, and that even during this corporeal separation there still exists a union of souls in the communion of saints.

1 Genesis, i. 26.
Pronaque cum spectent animalia cætera terram;
Os homini sublime dedit: cœlumque tueri
Jussit, et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.
Ovid, Metamorphoseon.

3 Job, xix. 25-27.
4 I. Corinthians, iii. 16, 17; vi. 15, 19, 20.
5 Genesis, ii. 17; Romans, vi. 28.
6 Eccles. ix. 1; I. Cor. iv. 4.
7 St. Luke, i. 68-79.
8 St. John, xi. 25, 26.