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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”
— Saint John Henry Newman (1865)

Wakes in Church & Funerals at the Parlor
published 2 November 2014 by Fr. David Friel

N MANY QUARTERS, those involved in parish life and pastoral care have been experiencing a definite trend. I won’t call the trend “alarming,” but “unfortunate” and “ill-conceived” would be good descriptors. The trend concerns the location of funerals.

In the “old days,” when a member of a Catholic family died, a wake might have been held in the family home—a sort of open house. The purpose of this event was to gather as a family to mourn, tell stories, and say a few prayers together to aid in the process of corporate grief. Eventually, the age of funeral parlors arose, and these homes then became the place for wakes. A day or more after the wake, there would be a funeral Mass in the local parish church. The purpose of this event was to pray for the happy repose of the deceased, to apply the merits of Christ’s Passion to the soul of the deceased, and to pray for healing & peace among the surviving family, friends, & neighbors.

Nowadays, priests & deacons & members of bereavement committees are faced with an entirely different situation. In fact, the situation is often the reverse of what makes sense.

More and more, families are requesting that funeral prayers be offered at the funeral parlor; meanwhile, other families desire to hold the wake in church. Judging from this state of affairs, we seem to have forgotten the purpose of church buildings and funeral parlors. The trouble with funerals at funeral parlors is that they omit the Mass; the trouble with wakes in church is that they reduce a sacred space to a gathering space, often leading to noise & activity unbecoming of the Lord’s house. These mismatched locations are neither appropriate nor conducive. (I have heard of some priests trying to reclaim the sacredness of the church space by offering confessions when they have a wake in church; this strikes me as an interesting idea, though not a thorough solution.)

The structure of the Order of Christian Funerals ritual book can teach us a few lessons. For example, the first part of the funeral liturgy is the Vigil (the prayers to be prayed during the wake), which is followed by the “Transfer of the Body to the Church.” That there should be a transfer to the church is a clear sign that the ritual does not envision a viewing in the church building.

In the Order of Christian Funerals, one also finds an option provided for what is called a “Funeral Liturgy outside Mass.” This form of the funeral service is clearly not preferable, inasmuch as it omits the sacrifice of Holy Mass, which is the most essential element of the “fraternal offices of burial.” The introduction to this section of the ritual book (#178) suggests very limited occasions for its use:

1. When the funeral Mass is not permitted, namely, on solemnities of obligation, on Holy Thursday and the Easter Triduum, and on the Sundays of Advent, Lent, and the Easter Season;
2. When in some places or circumstances it is not possible to celebrate the funeral Mass before the committal, for example, if a priest is not available;
3. When for pastoral reasons the pastor and the family judge that the funeral liturgy outside Mass is a more suitable form of celebration.

Even narrower is the language of the following paragraph (#179), which states: “The funeral liturgy outside Mass is ordinarily celebrated in the parish church, but may also be celebrated in the home of the deceased, a funeral home, parlor, chapel of rest, or cemetery chapel.” I have never seen the funeral liturgy outside Mass celebrated in a church, and I would guess that this seldom actually occurs. Without a doubt, this rubric clearly underscores the fundamental significance of the location of the funeral rites.

The reasons I commonly hear families give for requesting a priest to offer the service at the funeral home are very different. Among them are these:

1. The deceased never went to church anyway.
2. Using the church costs too much.
3. It would be easier for [name-an-infirm-relative] to have it all in one day at one location.

Certainly, families sometimes have other reasons, too, but these are the most common explanations I hear for why a family is requesting a funeral service at the parlor. Obviously there is a marked disconnect between the reasons proffered by families and the parameters established by the ritual.

Much of the trouble stems from people having lost a basic understanding of what a funeral is. A Catholic funeral is not a “life celebration.” Despite what many funeral homes try to market, a Catholic funeral is not a celebration of the deceased person’s human life. You often hear it said, “A funeral is for the family, not for the deceased.” In the Catholic framework, however, this is simply not true. A Catholic funeral is very much for the deceased, and only secondarily for the comfort of those who are left behind.

In the minds of many people, the essential component of a funeral is the eulogy. This is an issue we have addressed elsewhere. Whereas words of remembrance often are the essential element of Protestant funerals, this is never the case with the funeral of a Catholic. The essential element of a Catholic funeral is always and everywhere the efficacious sacrifice of Christ as re-presented in the Mass. It is, therefore, a matter of justice to arrange a funeral Mass for one who is deceased.

Restoring funerals & wakes to their proper locations will only be achieved at the grassroots level. Parishes need to help families making funeral arrangements to understand the background of these matters. Priests need to teach their parishioners and parents need to teach their children that location matters.

As my mother often told me, there is an appropriate time—and place—for everything.