Considering the funeral rituals of the Church has to take into account the breadth of human and Church history, as well as the various human cultures across the face of the globe. How death has been and is viewed in various places and over the course of centuries has certainly affected the ways in which Christian believers deal with death.
While we can’t possibly consider every aspect, even a quick consideration of some of the more obvious ways in which the Church has approached funerals shows her main priorities. I’m thinking, for example, of the catacombs and the way that very early in history it began to be customary for Christians to gather for prayer and even celebrate the Eucharist near burial places. This has led even today to cemeteries being sacred places in both canon law as well as popular perspective. It also led to the custom of permanent altars in church buildings always having at least one relic of a saint embedded within or beneath it. Finally, inasmuch as a stone altar evokes the idea of a tombstone, the liturgical preference for such immovable stone altars is based in this image. (Although I will be quick to point out that a moveable, wooden altar – which obviously evokes more the image of a table instead – remains a quite lawful and often recommended option in church architecture and art.)
In many past ages and places popular piety tended to emphasize more the precarious situation in which the departed and sinful soul may find itself. Thus much of medieval Church funeral music tended to emphasize dramatically this “final judgment.” (I’m thinking of the classic Latin sequence for funerals known as the Dies Irae, literally “Day of Wrath,” but there are many others.) Combined with this and also stressing the natural sense of loss and mourning, the Church in the west for centuries prescribed black vestments for the clergy funeral services, paralleling the social custom of somber dress for bereaved persons. (Now violet and white vestments are also allowed, with the latter being most customary in our country and culture.)
One last symbol which has remained part of the typical Catholic funeral ritual is incense. Of course, millennia ago burning incense may well have had a more practical function of masking the eventual decomposition of bodies to allow more lengthy periods of mourning. But inasmuch as fragrant clouds of incense rather poetically depict the mysterious and always soothing grace of God, this has long been used in Catholic worship to indicate blessing: just as the altar, book of the Gospels, and ministers and people are blessed with incense at Mass, so too at funerals is a specific incensation of the body made. This stresses our respect for that part of us which once housed the human soul, and which one day will be reunited with that soul on the day of final resurrection.
Many other funeral texts and liturgical actions reflect what we believe, and how strongly we believe them. We’ll consider some more next time!