Sancta Missa - Rituale Romanum (Roman Ritual) - Liturgy for the Faithful Departed - Introduction



The burial of one who has fallen asleep in Christ is in a certain sense a counterpart of his baptism. On the day of baptism he was brought into the house of God, his body alive but his soul dead in sin. Now, before being laid to rest, he returns for a last visit to the church edifice, the earthly image of the heavenly Jerusalem, his body a corpse but his soul gloriously alive in Christ through the bond of sanctifying grace.

It is truly meet and right and conducive to salvation that at all times and in all places we give thanks to you, holy Lord, almighty Father everlasting God, through Christ our Lord. For in the death of your faithful life is merely changed not taken away, and when the shelter of this earthly sojourn falls asunder, an everlasting dwelling in heaven awaits them in reward.[1]

The fragile vessel which was the temple of an immortal soul, the body consecrated and sanctified along with the soul through baptism and the other sacraments, is worthy of honor and respect in death as it was in life. For its committal to the earth is nothing less than the planting of a seed from which will come forth a glorified body on the day of resurrection. At the moment of its departure the soul wings its way to the presence of Him by whom it was fashioned, either to share immediately in the splendor of the beatific vision, or to be detained in a place of purification. However, a disembodied soul in the light of what constitutes human nature, is something incomplete, and it requires for unending perfection and happiness an eventual reunion with its onetime earthly abode. Without faith in purgatory as the state of purification, without faith in man's everlasting transfiguration, without faith in a corruptible body being revivified an incorruptible one, we could not understand the suffrages and ceremonies of the Catholic funeral service. The blessing of the corpse, the prayers, and the Requiem Mass must be seen for what they are, help to the departed Christian given by the communion of saints of which he is a member.

Christian burial--the Office, Mass of Requiem, and interment--is charged throughout in the highest degree with optimism and confidence. Such optimism and hope in the face of death can be appreciated only if one understands the mind of the Church in regard to the passing of her children. One of the finest treatises on the subject is Eugene Walter's "Die Herrlichkeit des Christlichen Sterbens." Although no attempt can be made to summarize the work, we borrow here from its inspiring contents. Death is a summons from God, our almighty sovereign, not when we but when He wills it. In the realization that death is under His dominion, faith begins to triumph and to break out into song: "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"[2] It is true that death has come upon man as one of the penalties for sin: "For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead."[3] Yet even this penalty can be viewed in our favor more as an opportunity for penance than as a punishment for sin. Adam's fall and our continued transgressions have their malice mainly in the fact that they are a turning away from God toward creatures, a preferring of the handiwork to the Creator. Death once again sets matters in the right order, since it is a complete separation from creature goods, but above all a return to God.

In dying man gives back obedience to God. Death affords man the greatest possibility of making satisfaction for his disobedience. Even in awaiting death there is an opportunity to show obedience to the Almighty's decrees, and the longer one must wait for the sentence to become effective, the more the merit of obedience. While he awaits the end of this life, confidence in Christ increases on the part of one who is baptized: "Neither death, nor life...nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus Our Lord."[4] Death becomes the complete attainment of his oneness with the divine head. In dying we can imitate Christ in all things, so that after "we suffer with Him we may be also glorified with Him."[5] Homage is rendered to the death of our Lord in all the sacramental worship of the Church, particularly in the eucharistic re-enactment of His sacrifice. Honor to the cross is given, moreover, by the acceptance of our cross as it bears down its heavy weight upon us in the course of life. By these means we "put on Christ," we increase the stature of our "being in Christ." But we honor Him, we imitate Him best, we enter into full possession of Christ especially at the moment of death, when our union with Him through grace gives place to the glory of possessing Him wholly, of seeing Him face to face The life of a Christian is an enduring sacrifice which is brought to its consummation only in death. In dying the member of Christ partakes of His atoning death, wherein are embraced all His faithful followers; therefore, death is more than a consoling thing--it is a holy thing. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."[6] To follow Him unto death is to follow Him unto glory. "For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible: and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption; and this mortal must put on immortality."[7]

This lofty view which the Church has of death is reflected in the service of laying to rest the bodies of her departed children. From earliest times the Church was most energetic in her efforts "gradually to draw its adherents away from all those funeral customs which were incompatible with its own teaching on this matter."[8] In contrast to the pagan concept of death as the final and irrevocable episode of human existence, our Savior had proposed to the world a new concept of death. For the body it is a sleep, as Christ said of his friend, Lazarus, a sleep while awaiting its final resurrection. "Death for Christians is not death," says St. Jerome, "but a slumber and a passing sleep."[9] We remember our beloved dead in Mass, referring to them "who have gone before us with the sign of faith and who sleep the sleep of peace."

For the soul death is not the end but a birth, a summons to a new existence. Thus St. Cyprian, in preaching about the mortality of man, found it necessary to admonish his people: "It has been made known to us again and again that we should not mourn over our brethren who have been delivered from this world by the summons of the Lord. For we ought to know that they are not lost to us but that they have been sent on ahead of us, that they have departed before us in order to live with God."[10] In respect of the last obsequies he is prompted to add: "Let us give no occasion to the gentiles, lest they deservedly and justly reprove us when we mourn as lost and obliterated those who we say are alive with Christ. For by such manifestation of the heart and the breast we deny the faith that we declare by word of mouth. In acting thus our hope and our faith become a sham, and our words seem to have the ring of pretense, insincerity, and counterfeit."[11]

The spirit of Christian faith, confidence, and joy in the face of death is immediately apparent in the burial rite of infants who have died in the state of baptismal innocence. At their passing the ritual directs that the church bells should not be tolled, but should be rung in festive tone. Around their bodies are placed flowers or fragrant herbs or greens, in token of integrity and virginal purity. The psalms chosen for the rite are delightful songs of praise and thanksgiving, and the prayers speak only of the happiness and bliss which fall to their lot among the saints and the elect in the celestial kingdom. Provided the newborn babe or child of tender age and sinless life has received the purifying waters of baptism, it has accomplished the purpose for which it came into being--to be added to the number of God's adorers in heaven--and when its Maker calls home the soul, there can be only rejoicing over the fact that its eternal goal has been reached. Yet besides the glory of innocence there is the glory of combat, the glory of those who have borne the heat and the burden of living; albeit they have not emerged from the battle of life free from the wounds of sin. God, who is the lover and the rewarder of innocence, is at the same time the most merciful pardoner of guilt. He is the kind Father, desiring that none who believes and trusts in Him should perish.

We appreciate readily enough the manifestation of God's kindness when He forthwith bestows everlasting life on baptized children as soon as they leave this world, without any merit of their own. A corresponding mildness and utter generosity on His part in dealing with departed sinners is discernible in the burial rite for adults, although this is to some extent obscured by the grim character of certain prayers in the Requiem Mass and Office added in the course of the Middle Ages. The Church found it necessary as time went on to sound a somber note in the liturgy of the dead--notably by the addition of the "Dies Irae" and the legislation of black vestments--because men had grown too preoccupied with this life. Thus she used the occasion to rouse them from such spiritual sluggishness, and the grim aspects of death were brought into the foreground. She justified the new attitude, however, without giving up the joyful and festive character of former ages. Both tendencies persist in the funeral office as we have it today, yet it is to be feared that the more serious and threatening notes have captured the imagination of our people, rather than the ones which resound with joy, peace, and victory.

It must be emphasized for our Catholic people that if, as they know and believe, the private suffrages of the faithful are of profit to the departed, how much more are the prayers of the Whole Christ, when the Church through her sacrifice and petitions comes to their assistance in the solemnity of her public worship. Christ and His entire mystical body, the communion of saints, the whole heavenly Jerusalem is present at the death of the baptized. In the sacrament of last anointing first of all, and then in the rite of the apostolic blessing at the hour of death and in the act of commending to God a departing soul, Christ, with His saving suffering and death, stands by to heal the servants whom the true faith and Christian hope commend, graciously to grant pardon and remission of all sin, to act in the role of a merciful judge to the soul at the hour of its departure, to cleanse it from every stain in His blood.

By means of the last rites and the funeral liturgy, we learn that death, which before could be only a punishment, is turned into a sacrifice through its union with Calvary's: "It is consummated." In union with the Christ of Calvary, man, by surrendering his soul, helps to repay humanity's debt. After the soul is born aloft to the bosom of the patriarchs, the body of a Christian, like the body of Christ which in death remained hypostatically united to the divine Word, remains organically incorporated in the mystical body of the Savior, and contains in itself the seed of glory. Therefore, the liturgy refers to the faithful departed in living terminology: "repose in the sleep of peace," "rest in Christ," "the bodies of the saints are laid away in peace, and their names shall live forever." In the Eucharist the body has received the seed of everlasting life.

When death has come the preparation of the body of the deceased ought to take place in a manner befitting so sacred a thing. All manner of worldly display should be absent, so that this corporal work of mercy can be carried out in a spirit of true piety. On whom should this duty devolve if not on the surviving members of the family themselves? Nobody is more suited to this last act of love than they. We might shrink today from imitating Christians of early times in certain practices which accompanied the laying out of the body: catching the last breath with the mouth, bestowing the kiss of peace on the brow, placing the Eucharist in the mouth of the corpse (now absolutely forbidden), washing the body with milk, honey, and wine--all of which was at variance with the Jewish tradition that defilement resulted from contact with a dead body.

Yet there are duties and ministrations to the treasured remains that ought to be accepted without reluctance by relatives and friends: closing the eyes and mouth, arranging the members in a fitting posture, fixing the hands in the form of a cross or placing a crucifix in the hands, washing the corpse and clothing it in its shroud, arranging that the church bells be tolled to announce the departure and to beg prayers of the neighboring community. Happily there still are groups, at least the clergy and religious orders, who regard this office as their own and fulfill it in a spirit of respect and obligation. Certainly it is not proper that it be given over entirely to morticians. A little more concern is in order as to what lengths that profession will be allowed to go. It is nothing if not grotesque to see a dead person painted and rouged, as though about to trip out before the footlights in a danse macabre; and how preposterous to equip a corpse with spectacles (even a lorgnette). While the body lies in state there ought to prevail an atmosphere breathing peace and joy, hope, and resurrection. Nearby should be a crucifix, lighted candles around the body as a reminder that in life he knew the light of Christ and is now to possess it in the beatific vision, and floral decorations in number and arrangement consonant with good taste.

During the time of the wake there should be concern above all for the departed soul, with the Office for the Dead recited either in its official form or in an abbreviated and simplified vernacular, or suitable readings from Sacred Scripture and the rosary service.

From the third century onward there is testimony for the liturgical custom of chanting psalms when carrying the dead to burial, as well as for the offering of Mass on the day of demise or funeral, and on the third, seventh, and thirtieth days after death and on the anniversary. The burial rite of today is found in its essentials in the fourth century,[12] consisting of: (1) the preparation of the corpse and the vigil of players while waking the body; (2) procession from the home to the church; (3) worship in church with the body present; (4) procession to the cemetery and interment. However, an organized Office for the Dead dates only from the eighth century; its texts and rubrics are given in an antiphonary of St. Peter's and in the "Ordines Romani." Because it was the teaching of some that the particular judgment takes place at once at the place where the person expires, the prayer which follows was said immediately: "Come in haste to assist him, you saints of God. Come in haste to meet him, you angels of the Lord. Receive his soul, and offer it in the sight of the Most High. May Christ receive you...and may the angels lead you to Abraham's bosom." Thereupon came the preparation for burial referred to above.

Battifol, when describing the transferal of the remains for the final obsequies, quotes from an ancient source how this was one in Rome:

The body of the departed is brought in the evening to the basilica of St. Peter. Amid the tolling of bells they cross the forecourt of the church, and stop at the threshold of that one of its five doors which is called the "Gate of Jerusalem," because it is the door of the dead. There they chant "Miserere" with these two antiphons: "Thou Who knowest the secrets of all hearts, cleanse thou me from sin. Grant me time to cry in penitence: 'Against thee have I sinned.' Bring him, in O Lord, to the mountain of their inheritance, even to the sanctuary which thine hands have prepared, O Lord." The door is opened, the body brought in, and the office begins. It is a vigil, and includes, as every vigil should, vespers, three nocturns, and lauds. It is the Roman Office in its purest state--no hymn, no short lesson.[13]

The burial service reaches its climax in the Mass of Requiem. In the sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist, the redemptive mysteries are brought to the soul, endowing it with full salvation and transfiguration. Evidence of a funeral Mass exists as early as the second century. The texts of the Requiem are certainly very ancient, except for the "Dies Irae," and they have a joyful and festive character which is carried over into their musical settings. It is necessary to bear in mind that, just as on the feast days of the saints, the Church in the funeral Mass is commemorating the day of demise, in fact, the hour of the coming of the Lord. The coming of the Lord in the Eucharist-sacrifice is joined with His coming at the hour of death and His coming on the last day. So infinite in power are the effects of the Mass, that when it is over the Church can envision the departed in full possession of eternal glory. Thus the procession to the grave is regarded as a festive entrance into Paradise, symbolized by the hymn that is sung when the body is carried out.

The final rite of Christian burial is the interment. The body is laid to rest in consecrated ground among the "saints" who are fallen asleep in Christ. Before it is given to the earth, the grave is blessed, provided the cemetery has not received consecration, or if the grave is not an excavation in the ground but a special tomb or mausoleum. In the course of this blessing God is besought to appoint one of His holy angels to stand watch over the grave, to guard it for all time against desecration. The service of entombment is brought to a beautiful conclusion in the singing of the "Benedictus," the morning-song of redemption uttered by Zachary at the birth of John the Baptist, in acknowledgment of the coming Redeemer. Here in an accommodated sense it proves to be a song of anticipation and longing for the Lord's second coming. At the same time the Church sings a canticle of solemn thanksgiving to God for all the rich graces granted the departed from the cradle to the grave, for the strength received to fight the enemies of salvation, along with an earnest supplication that he may enter into the peace and rest of everlasting glory. Like the rising sun in the east, the Lord appears in the distance in all power and majesty to bring light to him who sleeps in the shadow of the grave. Therefore, it is a tradition practically as old as the Church to bury the body with its feet pointing toward the east. In all confidence that the deceased has departed this life in the charity of Christ and that his body will arise transfigured on judgment day, the hymn concludes with the antiphon: "I am the resurrection and the life; he that believes in me, although he be dead. shall live; and every one that lives and believes in me shall never die."


1. Preface of Requiem Mass.

2. I Cor 15.55.

3. Ibid. 15.21.

4. Rom 8.38.

5. Ibid., 8.17.

6. Ps 115.15.
7. 1 Cor 15.52

8. Cf. Alfred Rush, C.Ss.R.: "Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity," Cath. U. of America Press, Washington, 1941.

9. "Epist. 75 ad Theodor.," P.L., t. XXII.

10. "De Mortalitate," C. XX, P.L., t. IV.

11. Ibid. C. XX, P.L., t. XXII.

12. Cf. Cabrol: Dictionnaire d'Archeologie Chretienne et de Liturgie, I, 202 v, 2706 ff.

12. Battifol, "History of the Roman Breviary," p. 151, Longmans, 1912.

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