Monday, February 23, 2009

Who may receive a Catholic funeral?

Who may receive a Catholic funeral?
Who may be buried in a Catholic cemetery?
May a Protestant funeral take place in a Catholic church?


Any baptized Catholic in good standing has a right to a funeral within the Church and according to her liturgical practice. There are some people to whom the Church denies Catholic funeral rites. Additionally, there are some circumstances in which a Catholic funeral is allowed to a non-Catholic person. Similar guidelines apply to burial in a Catholic cemetery. Finally, given certain circumstances, a Protestant funeral may take place in a Catholic church.

Terms to Know

Catholic funeral rites are the liturgical rites in which the Church "commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins." 1 There are three principal components to a Catholic funeral: the vigil for the deceased (sometimes referred to as the "wake"), the funeral liturgy (which often includes the celebration of Mass), and the rite of committal (which is generally followed by the burial). These are outlined in the Order of Christian Funerals.

A Mass for the Dead is a Mass offered for the repose of the soul of any deceased person. "From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1032, emphasis added).


Mindful of the importance of a Christian funeral, the Church prescribes that "deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law" (Code of Canon Law, Canon 1176.1). Any baptized Catholic in good standing has a right to a funeral within the Church and according to her liturgical practice.

Catechumens are counted among Christ’s faithful, and as such, have a right to a Catholic funeral (Canon 1183.1).

A baptized non-Catholic may be allowed a Catholic funeral at the discretion of the local ordinary (generally the diocesan bishop or his vicar general): "In the prudent judgment of the local ordinary, ecclesiastical funerals can be granted to baptized persons who are enrolled in a non-Catholic Church or ecclesial community unless their intention is evidently to the contrary and provided that their own minister is not available" (Canon 1183.3).

The Church denies funeral rites to the following people, unless they gave some signs of repentance before death:

notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;
those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith; other manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful (cf. Canon 1184.1.1–3).
If a dispute arises as to whether a Catholic funeral should be granted a particular person, the local ordinary should be consulted and his judgment followed. Even if the deceased is refused a Catholic funeral, Masses can be offered for his eternal well-being: "A priest is free to apply the Mass for anyone, living or dead" (Canon 901).

May someone who commits suicide receive a Catholic funeral? In the past, people who committed suicide were often denied a Church funeral. This was not a judgment of the deceased’s eternal destiny (indeed, the Church has always offered Masses for those who have committed suicide). Rather, a Church funeral was denied to the deceased in order to avoid giving scandal to the faithful and to emphasize the grave nature of suicide.

As in the past, the Church teaches that suicide is and always will be objectively and gravely wrong. At the same time, today she better understands the psychological disturbances that may influence a suicide and thus mitigate personal culpability. This being the case, those who take their life are now typically provided funerals (cf. Catechism, no. 2282).

May divorced and remarried Catholics receive a Catholic funeral? As with persons who had committed suicide, persons who had remarried outside the Church were often denied a Catholic funeral. Again, this was to avoid giving scandal to the faithful and to prevent the faithful from taking the matter lightly. 2

The Church now generally allows Catholic funerals and burials to those who have divorced and remarried. This discipline of allowing funerals does not change the Church’s doctrine: Divorce and remarriage without an annulment is and always will be objectively wrong. (For more on the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, please see our Faith Fact on the subject.)

May baptized infants receive a Catholic funeral? Even if a baptized child is only a few days old, by virtue of his baptism he is a "member of the Christian faithful" and should be given a funeral (cf. Canon 1176.1). This funeral should normally take place at the parish of the child’s parents (cf. Canon 1177).

May unbaptized babies receive a Catholic funeral? What about miscarried babies? If a child’s parents intended to have their child baptized but the child died before the sacrament could be administered, the local ordinary may allow the child to have a Catholic funeral (cf. Canon 1183.2).

Likewise, a miscarried baby may receive a Catholic funeral, though a family is not required to formally bury a miscarried child. If a more developed unborn child dies and is delivered intact, parents often choose to bury the child. Otherwise, hospitals typically remove the remains as they do with human organs or bodily tissue removed during surgery. (Because most miscarriages occur in the first trimester, the remains are generally minimal and/or incomplete [as with a D & C procedure].) The different ways of laying the child’s body to rest in no way imply that a fetus at an earlier point of gestation is less than a person or less deserving of respect. Every human life is sacred, "from the moment of conception until death" (Catechism, no. 2319; cf. no. 2258).

The same guidelines for funerals and burials of unbaptized children would apply to aborted babies. The Church recognizes the personhood of every unborn child (cf. Catechism, nos. 2270–75). She prays for the souls of miscarried and aborted babies, and commends them to the mercy of God (cf. Catechism, no. 1261).

May an animal receive a Catholic funeral? The Church provides for the blessing of living animals. However, the Church does not have funeral rites for pets. Funerals are reserved to human persons. There is no definitive Church teaching on whether animals will be in heaven; many theologians conclude that only souls made in the image of God (i.e., human souls) will be in heaven.

Who May Be Buried in a Catholic Cemetery?

Like Catholic churches, Catholic cemeteries are considered "sacred places" in canon law (cf. Canon 1205). They are dedicated by the local ordinary (or his representative) to be used for a religious purpose. The designation as a "sacred place" then defines what is acceptable in that place.

Catholic cemeteries are established for Catholics to be buried in consecrated ground. At the same time, the Church desires that the dead be buried, and she has a special concern for the poor. Therefore, others may be buried in Catholic cemeteries at the discretion of the local bishop (see below citations from Ad Totam Ecclesiam and the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms in Ecumenism). For example, it is customary in the United States to allow a non-Catholic spouse or close relative of a Catholic to be buried next to their loved one in the Catholic cemetery without special permission. Or again, the local bishop may allow those without a proper burial place to be buried in a Catholic cemetery.

May a Protestant Funeral Take Place in a Catholic Church?

If the Protestant community lacks a facility for worthily celebrating a funeral and if the local ordinary grants permission, a Protestant funeral may take place in a Catholic church. By the same principles, a Protestant may be buried in a Catholic cemetery.

The Directory on Ecumenism, Ad Totam Ecclesiam (1967), issued by the Secratariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians, says, "If the separated brethren have no place in which to carry out their religious rites properly and with dignity, the local ordinary may allow them the use of a Catholic building, cemetery or church" (no. 61).

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity’s Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms in Ecumenism (1993) reiterates and expands upon the 1967 document. It states:

Catholic churches are consecrated or blessed buildings which have an important theological and liturgical significance for the Catholic community. They are therefore generally reserved for Catholic worship. However, if priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan Bishop may allow them the use of a church or a Catholic building and also lend them what may be necessary for their services. Under similar circumstances permission may be given to them for interment or for the celebration of services at Catholic cemeteries. (no. 137)


Aunt Laura said...

That is great information. Thank you so much for posting it.

the booklady said...

Want to join a Lenten reading meme?

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