The Archbishop's Funeral Guidelines

Driving to work on Friday, I switched on 774 (our local ABC station) and heard Red Simons declaring: “I’m with the Church on this. I’m with the Pope.” What? Had Red got religion all of a sudden? Slowly the facts emerged. He was saying that “The Catholic Church” had declared that certain kinds of “inappropriate” music were not permitted to be used in funeral services (Hullo, I thought, something in this morning’s paper), and he was in full agreement. “And I want you to ring in and tell me what songs you think would be inappropriate at a funeral”, Red was saying. Actually, the callers came up with some quite funny possibilities for the “banned” list.

Any way, I only got to take a look at the “papal pronouncement” this morning – it is, of course, not from the Pope but from the next best thing locally speaking, our Archbishop. The Archdiocese of Melbourne Guidelines for Catholic funerals are not really anything new, but is a restatement and clarification of principles already long established. Only, with this restatement, no-one can now claim “I didn’t know about that”. The guidelines are clear and pastoral. Here are a couple of things that stood out for me – not necessarily because of their importance, but because of the “that’s-interesting” factor.

But in planning the liturgy, the celebrant should moderate any tendency to turn the funeral into a secular celebration of the life of the deceased. “The Church offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ’s Passover for the dead so that, since all members of Christ’s body are in communion with each other, the petition of spiritual help on behalf of some may bring comforting hope to others.” (GIRM 379)

Good word that, “moderate”. It acknowledges that there are some forces that will be very difficult to overcome entirely, but at least the priest can act so as to “moderate” these forces rather than encourage them.
I thought this point particularly interesting:

Designating a Catholic Funeral
When the Eucharist is celebrated, media announcements and the title page of a printed booklet should bear one of these designations:
•Mass of Christian Burial for Mary Brown,
•The Funeral Mass of Mary Brown,
•Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Mary Brown

If a Liturgy of the Word is celebrated the designation may be
•Rites of Christian Burial of Mary Brown
•The Funeral Liturgy of Mary Brown
A Catholic funeral is not “A celebration of the life of Mary Brown” or “A Memorial Service for Mary Brown”. These designations should never appear in media announcements or on the booklet.

This is an important point. It concerns branding, and the guidelines show a good grasp of the fact that the goods which the Church offers have to be correctly branded, so that they don’t give a false message about their contents. Good theology begins by calling a thing what it really is.

But note the guidelines are not insensitive to the natural human need to celebrate the life of the deceased loved one:

However, celebrating memories of the life of deceased may be carried out:
•the night before the funeral, either at the funeral parlour, or before the vigil or rosary in the church – if permitted by the Parish Priest;
•in a separate moment before the Mass or a Liturgy of the Word begins – if permitted by the Parish Priest;.
•at some social occasion before or after the funeral.

Similar suggestions are made for “Words of Farewell” (including poems and secular readings) and “Military Customs” (no mention is made of Masonic or Lodge customs – I suspect we are supposed to assume that everyone knows they have no place in a Christian burial…). The point is just that such focus on the deceased from a natural point of view (as opposed from a divine point of view) is not appropriate in the Funeral itself. The Funeral is designed to get across a particular message (“it may include appropriate reference to the deceased, [but] it is meant to be a message of Christian hope in the Resurrection” as it says elsewhere in the guidelines), and the Church does not want this message to be lost by getting mixed up with other powerful messages and narratives at work in this context.

There is a significant amount of emphasis on the evangelical opportunity presented by a Funeral. Regarding the homily, the guidelines suggest that it be “given in a positive spirit of evangelization”. And then there is this:

Moreover pastors should take into special account those who are present at a liturgical celebration or who hear the Gospel on the occasion of the funeral and who may be non-Catholics or Catholics who never or rarely participate in the Eucharist or who seem even to have lost the faith. For priests are the ministers of Christ’s Gospel for all.” (GIRM 385 and see The Rite of Funerals, Introduction, 18)

This includes again the very practical direction to include the full text of the Rite of the Mass in the booklets (and the note that “This will also be important when the new ICEL translations are introduced”). The guidelines even make the point that the pages of the booklet be numbered (presumably so that the celebrant can direct the people to follow the words of the rite).

I was interested in this:

There are three options for the colour of vestments: white, violet or black. In this matter, pastoral consideration for the circumstances and the wishes of the family should be taken into account and ethnic customs should be respected.

I did not know that black was an option for the Novus Ordo funeral mass – is this an effect of Summorum Pontificum?

Then of course comes the point that drew Red Simon’s interest:


The music for a Catholic funeral is liturgical. What is possible will be determined by the circumstances and available musicians. Hymns appropriate to the occasion may be chosen. At the Mass, whenever possible the Lord have mercy, Holy, holy, and Lamb of God should be sung. Recorded music should be avoided.

Where possible it is desirable that the responsorial psalm and alleluia verse be sung.

During a psalm, hymn or music, members of the family and friends should take part in the Procession of the Gifts.

During the Rite of Farewell Saints of God or the alternatives (The Rite of Funerals, 187-191) should be sung if possible while the coffin is sprinkled with Holy Water and incensed.

Secular items are never to be sung or played at a Catholic funeral, such as romantic ballads, pop or rock music, political songs, football club songs.

At the funerals of children, pastoral care needs to be taken in the choice of music. Nursery rhymes and sentimental secular songs are inappropriate because these may intensify grief.

The point that interested me is the stipulation that, where possible, the Lord have mercy, Sanctus, Lamb of God, Psalm and Alleluia Verse are all to be sung. I would like to take from this that, if this is the standard set for Funeral Masses, then surely it ought to apply to Sunday Parish masses as well? Is that an illegitimate conclusion?

As regards “Recorded music should be avoided”, I would also like to have a small clarification. We suspect that what is meant is recorded tracks of the deceased’s favourite songs and such. But I do have a question about what is permissable when musicians are unavailable. Can suitable recorded instrumental music be used for a period of reflection during the offertory or after communion (as indeed often happens at Sunday masses where there is no musicians available)? And can pre-recorded instrumental music (such as a mp3 or midi file) – be used to support the congregrational singing? Given the shortage of musicians these days, it might be something that a priest may have a setting of the mass and the songs to be sung on mp3 (or midi file).

There is also an interesting note on cremation (which we have discussed several times on this blog):

The Church still favors the burial or interment of earthly remains, however since 1963 cremation has been allowed.

Cremation is best understood as processing a body before burial. For Christians cremation is not a religious act and it should not be confused with burial or interment. Therefore the following procedure would seem best.

1.The funeral Mass or a Liturgy of the Word is celebrated at the church as usual. However, at the end of the Rite of Farewell the celebrant does not say “Let us take our sister to her place of rest”. The coffin is taken from the church to the crematorium for private cremation without prayers.
2.At some later time, by arrangement with the family or friends, the ashes are interred in the churchyard, in a cemetery or some other appropriate place. The committal prayers for the burial of a body are used. The place of interment should be marked with the name of the deceased to assist those who wish to visit that place and to encourage prayer for the dead.
Circumstances may require the funeral rite to be celebrated as a Liturgy of the Word at the crematorium. Any suggestion that the remains are being committed to a furnace should be avoided. Therefore the funeral ends with the Rite of Farewell. The celebrant does not say “Let us take our sister to her place of rest”. The procedure of a later interment of ashes should be followed, as indicated above.

…Under some circumstances cremation may have to precede the funeral rites. Only in such rare situations may the ashes be set before the altar during the liturgy, which is followed by immediate interment of ashes, as indicated above.

In accord with Catholic tradition, scattering ashes cannot be regarded as an appropriate way of treating the earthly remains of the dead. Scattering ashes in a favourite place, e.g. on a golf course or at a beach, may even imply that the deceased would want to remain there, in this world, rather than entering eternal life with God. Keeping ashes at home or sharing ashes between relatives is also inappropriate and may imply an unhealthy even superstitious attitude to the remains of the dead.

All in all, thank you for this, Your Grace.

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17 Responses to The Archbishop's Funeral Guidelines

  1. Fr John Fleming says:

    Black is provided for in the GIRM of the Missal of Paul VI. Seer GIRM of the Missal of Paul VI, number 308 (e).

  2. Paul G says:

    When the radio personality, Stan Zemanek, died, his funeral Mass was at St Mary’s North Sydney. It was televised live, and Fr Smith SJ handled it very well, giving explanations to all the congregation of the meaning of what was happening.
    I heard several talk back calls the next day saying how much they appreciated the care taken in these explanations.

    I am sure that a sincere and full explanation of the reasons for these practices at funerals will be appreciated and in most cases avoid resentment. Engaging fully with everyone in the congregation is a lot of work, but it worth the effort, in my opinion.

  3. Matthias says:

    Yes a celebration of a person’s life can descend into showbiz extravaganza on the part of the family.I think the advent of civil celebrants has seen some of their antics taken up by the clergy-well from a Proddy perspestive.
    I have already planned my funeral and stipulated to my non Christian family members NO CIVIL CELEBRANT ,my pastor only.
    Readings from scripture and poems ,and well known hymns and only at the end as people are moving out -one of U2’s songs.
    Having had to plan the funerals of both my parents,I thought this was one less trauma prevented for my family.

    • Schütz says:

      U2? “only at the end”? Probably lucky you’re not Catholic, Matthias – I don’t think that would fit into the Arch’s guidelines at all!

      Mind you, the reason I asked that question about recorded music is that I have always thought I would have liked to have “Gabriel’s Theme” played at my funeral, and I don’t know if it would be easy to find an oboe player at short notice! Still, maybe we can scrap that and just add another hymn (you can’t have too many hymns at a funeral in my book).

  4. Gareth says:

    I once heard by ‘hearsay’ that one of many things that got thrown out after Vatican II was the priest wearing black vestments during a Requiem Mass and a ‘eulogy’ being made at the funeral wake/rosary the night before which now takes place during the actual Mass

    When my own grandmother passed away nine years ago, there was no eulogy during the Mass due to the fact that no-one was available and my mother was not up to it. Instead a eulogy was given the night before at the rosary/wake and a sermon was given during the actual Mass.

    It actually was one of the better funerals that I have ever been to and really felt like a simple, dignified and prayerful service that gave thanks to God rather than an over-emphasis on the person.

    Which all makes sense really as God is one that will judge whether we have lived a good life or not, not fake eulogies.

    I have been to too many funerals when the eulogies are simply too long and leaves one looking at one’s watch rather than praying for the person’s soul, which is the real point of Catholic funerals.

    Catholics at the very least should re-visit the true purpose of a Requiem Mass.

  5. Fr John Fleming says:

    Yes Gareth, and they also read the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Black may be used. It was never thrown out as many an ideologue has claimed.

    • Peregrinus says:

      Black has always been permitted. However of the three options it is far and away the least popular. I suspect many parishes do not have a set of black vestments, so it may not in practice be available.

      Speaking as an Irish Catholic (the Only Authentic Form of Catholicism), the problem seems to me to be the attempt to conflate the wake and the funeral. A psychologically and spiritually healthy society needs both, and it’s a mistake to try to get one to fill the role of the other.

  6. Matthias says:

    Pere i reckon the Eastern catholics would have an issue with your comment about authenticity of Catholicism.

    • Peregrinus says:

      And Anglos wouldn’t?

      • Matthias says:

        Probably would. But then let us remember that last year Eastern catholic bishops complained about the lack of understanding and or ignorance that some of the children of their various flocks were experiencing in Catholic parish schools regarding specific Eastern catholic practices ,that attracted negative responses at these schools.
        . One correspondent put it down to a hangover from Irish catholicism .

        • Peregrinus says:

          And he was probably right.

          My claim was intended in jest. My point about the need for a wake [i]and[/i] a funeral was serious, though, and on [i]that[/i] particular matter I think the Irish (cultural) tradition is sounder than the Aussie.

  7. matthias says:

    Rather a hangover from irish catholicism than a hangover from now let’ see:

    Plymouth brethren darbyism
    anglican establishmentism -“oh awfully Low church you people are ”
    Prosperity Gospel
    Baptist triumphalism
    Hillsong’s ‘sacro-pop” culture.

  8. Christine says:

    When I was a lad, the Lutheran Church still used black on Good Friday. It always struck me as very beautiful and dignified.

    Ditto in my Lutheran upbringing.

    Speaking as an Irish Catholic (the Only Authentic Form of Catholicism),

    Heh heh heh — my Polish Catholic mother-in-law would probably have challenged you on that one bigtime!!

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