The Traditions and Customs of Catholic Funeral Mass

What to expect from a mass and which traditions you should follow
A censer is often used during the Catholic Funeral Mass


When I worked as a hospice social worker, the care team often attended the funerals of clients who had died. I saw many ceremonies that were beautiful and meaningful, but the one that touched me most was the Catholic funeral Mass, especially after our chaplain explained to me what was expected as a non-Catholic attendee.

Like all services, each Catholic funeral Mass has variations and ways to personalize the service. In general, though, each funeral has three parts: the Vigil, the Mass and the Committal.

The Vigil usually takes place the night before the Mass in the home of the person who died or at the church they attended. Visitors share stories. Some bring refreshments. There is no provision for a eulogy during the Mass, so eulogies take place at the Vigil.

The Catholic funeral Mass is celebrated the next day. However, the Church prohibits Mass on certain days when. For instance, there can be no funeral Mass on Sundays during Advent or Sundays during Lent or Easter Season (the 50 days following Easter). The Church also prohibits funeral Masses during the time between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday.

The Catholic Funeral Mass is a ceremony led by a priest or, in some cases, by a deacon. If the body of the person who died was cremated, the Church refers to the ceremony as a memorial Mass. If the body of the person is present, it calls it a funeral Mass.

Priest sprinkle holy water at a Catholic funeral Mass


In either case, the ceremony involves religious music, reading of the scriptures and prayer. Sometimes the priest sprinkles holy water on the casket and burns incense to honor the dead. Catholics believe that when the body dies, the soul goes to heaven, purgatory or hell. Spirits in purgatory stay there until they have made up for their sins. Then they move on to heaven. Catholics believe that praying for their loved ones can shorten their time in purgatory. That is the purpose of the prayers they offer during the mass.

The Committal ceremony takes place when the body is placed in the ground or in a mausoleum. Only family and close friends usually attend. The Catholic Church allows cremation, but it disapproves of the scattering of ashes.

How to Behave at a Catholic Funeral Mass

Going to a Catholic funeral Mass if you are not Catholic can be confusing because of all the different rites and rituals. These tips may help:

Standing and sitting: You should sit and stand as the priest directs.

Kneeling: Some people are uncomfortable with kneeling in a church because it is not part of their worship services. The Church doesn’t require that you kneel if you choose not to. Nor does it prohibit you from doing so if you wish. If the idea bothers you, just remain seated and no one will think any less of you.

Communion: If you are not Catholic, do not take Communion at a Catholic funeral Mass. The Church forbids it. Simply stay seated when the priest calls people to the front of the church. Don’t worry about being conspicuous. Several others are sure to remain seated as well.

Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in the United States. So you will probably attend a Catholic funeral Mass at some point in your life. This article offers some tips on what you can expect and how you should behave.

Posted in Cultural Perspectives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discussing Death Around the Globe

Coffee houses and conferences draw community who want to discuss death together

Mankind is raising its consciousness when it comes to death. Not only is the subject no longer taboo, it is the main topic of conversation at conferences and cafes around the globe. From Oxford, England’s Death Café, where visitors enjoy “good company, cake and a chat about death,” to New York’s Art of Dying Conference in October 2017, discussing death has become a choice.

The mid-October Big Apple event conference series “speaks to the progressive awakening of our culture to a more conscious view of our own mortality,” according to the New York Open Center, who organized the event. The three-day conference will have both holistic and traditional perspectives. “Death and dying are topics that are discussed with increasing openness and with an awareness that our view of death profoundly impacts our experience of life,” the event website states.

Group of people standing on a pier


For those that cannot make it to New York, the sixth-series conference will be webcast live.

As the East Coast is busy discussing death, the West Coast will be doing so as well at the End Well Project, a San Francisco Symposium to be held Dec. 7, 2017. Speakers at the event will include physicians, professors, authors and industry experts, who will openly discuss the end-of-life-experience.

The San Francisco event is organized by End Well, a group whose goal is to “engage a diverse national audience in conversation about what it means to live well until the very end” according to the website. “When inevitably faced with issues of mortality, many of us — whether patient, family or clinician—will suffer needlessly for a variety of reasons, ” the website adds. By offering the symposium, the organizers hope to “create a platform that will transform thought into-human centered action as we reimagine the end of life experience in ways that are universally available and serve the needs of the individual.”

Poster from a death cafe where people are discussing death


The Death Talk Project’s manifesto makes it clear that how we discuss death could be either detrimental or dynamic. “When it comes to dying, bereavement, and remembrance—talking about it matters. How we talk about it may matter even more,” its website states.

Lastly, Death Café, makes it possible for those who want to discuss death to find a nearby location to do so, as well as offering informative and inspiring end-of-life material.

Be it a cafe, conference, or a conversation with a friend, discussing death is vital to living a healthy life. When we accept that death truly is part of life, the notion can be rather freeing rather than terribly frightening.

Posted in Something Special | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

- William Shakespeare
Person rock climbing against a blue sky displaying courage

Posted in A Right of Passage | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as a tribute to enduring love
Heart made of nails on black background with sandaled feet

Your love is still in my heart

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of enduring love.The project began in 2005, when Page Hodel first met Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” Soon afterwards, Page began leaving handmade hearts on Madalene’s doorstep every Monday.  

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.”

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died on June 20th, 2006. To remember her, Page continues to make a heart every Monday in celebration of her life.

To learn more about Page and the Monday Hearts for Madalene Project, please visit her website, Monday Hearts for Madalene

See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

Posted in Hearts for Madeline | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Endless Waiting of End Stage Renal Disease

Thousands of people are living on borrowed time awaiting a kidney transplant
Delicate pink flowers blowing in the wind show end stage renal disease

Credit: nature365

End stage renal disease is the medical term for kidney failure, a condition that happens when the kidneys are no longer able to filter excess fluid and waste products from the blood. Untreated kidney failure is uniformly fatal. Other than a kidney transplant, the only treatment is dialysis, which can be performed using an artificial kidney machine (hemodialysis) or the person’s own abdominal lining (peritoneal dialysis). Both treatments are effective, but they must be done frequently. People who get treatment at a dialysis center must go several times a week for hours at a time. Those who get dialysis at home may receive treatment one or more times a day.

As of 2013, 468,000 Americans were undergoing dialysis for end stage renal disease. Of these, about 100,000 are on the transplant waiting list. And despite the fact that kidneys are one of five major organs that can be donated by a living donor, the average wait time for these patients is about 3 to 5 years. In some states, the waiting list can be up to 10 years long.

Each year, about 90,000 people in the United States die while awaiting a kidney transplant. Tens of thousands more are too ill to receive a transplant by the time a donor is available.

Keysha was a 22 year-old woman who had systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus, an autoimmune disease. She was diagnosed with the illness when she was 15 and had been doing well for several years on immunosuppressive therapy. But five years ago, her kidneys started to fail. (Kidney disease is a common complication of lupus.) Not long afterward, she was diagnosed with end stage renal disease.  

Keysha underwent hemodialysis at home every day. Her mom, Carolyn, a 45-year old restaurant worker and single mom, cared for her daughter, as well as her 10-year old son.

Pink flower blowing in the wind shows the fragile life of someone with end stage renal disease

“Keysha was so angry,” Carolyn confides. “She felt like she never got to be a teenager, never got to do any of the things her friends did. She never even had a boyfriend. Keysha was so beautiful! But the steroids…” her voice trails off before the sentence is complete.

“Keysha never finished high school,” Carolyn goes on. “Not because she couldn’t…she just didn’t want to go anymore. And how could I force her, knowing what she was going through?”

“Now I almost wish I had pushed her more,” she adds. “Maybe if she had some friends…someone her own age to talk to, things would have turned out differently. But I guess I’ll never know.”

Keysha’s anger was understandable. Her life had been irrevocably changed by her disease and treatment side effects. The high doses of steroids she had to take to control her symptoms, in particular, caused changes in her appearance that made her terribly upset. She had developed a characteristic “moon face” and acne, and she had gained weight. The steroids also made her irritable and depressed.

Keysha went on the transplant waiting list when she was 17 years old. At 21, she was still waiting, and angrier than ever before. Despite concerns about her young son, Carolyn considered donating one of her kidneys, but she wasn’t a suitable donor. And Keysha’s brother was too young.

Lone pink flower covered in dew shows loneliness end stage renal disease


Soon after her 22nd birthday, Keysha began to refuse her medications and talk about wanting to die. Carolyn sought psychological counseling for her daughter, but Keysha refused to participate. Keysha’s doctor prescribed antidepressants and began tapering her steroids, thinking that they were contributing to her sense of despair.

But nothing seemed to help. Despite her mother’s pleading and her doctor’s dire warnings, Keysha began skipping her dialysis, first one treatment, then for several days in a row. She became more and more ill, and was eventually hospitalized with a pericardial effusion, a life-threatening buildup of fluid around her heart. Two days later, despite dialysis and emergency surgery, Keysha died.

I still miss her every day,” Carolyn says, fighting back tears. “I miss the girl she was and the woman she could have become. All she needed was a donor. Just one kidney. Was that so much to ask?”

There are about 100,000 registered organ donors in the United States today — about 54 percent of all adults. I can’t think of a single reason why that number isn’t 100 percent.

Can you?

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. ~Muhammad Ali

About Kathleen

Each month Kathleen Clohessy, R.N., offers a new perspective on living with a terminal illness. Kathleen comes to SevenPonds with 25 years experience as a registered nurse caring for families and children facing life-threatening illness. She began her career in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Nassau County Medical Center in New York. After relocating to California, she spent 15 years as an R.N. and Assistant Nurse Manager at the Pediatric Oncology & Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Lucille Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. She uses her knowledge and expertise to enlighten our readers about the challenges associated with chronic illness and its effects on family relationships.

Posted in So, You Got the News | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We all pay for life with death, so everything in between should be free.”

- Bill Hicks

A close up photo of someone handing 35 dollars to another person

Posted in Laughter is Medicine | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment