Rev. H. G. Hughes [1899]: The Burial of the Dead
The Burial of the Dead
by the Rev. H.G. Hughes, 1899

[Image: Burial%20of%20the%20Dead_01.jpg]

"It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins."--II. Maccabees xii, 46.

SYNOPSIS.-- Introduction.--Protestant criticism of Catholics burial rites unjust, because they do not witness the whole of Catholic obsequies (funeral service). The Church thinks more of the soul than of the body; believes that "it is a holy and wholesome thought, to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins." Herein the difference between Protestant and Catholic burial rites.

Catholic rites, indeed, express hope, but also the sense of man's sinfulness and the dread of the Divine wrath.

I. The Office of the Dead.--Vespers; matins and lauds. Brief description of the sentiments expressed in Psalms, Antiphons and Lessons. Then pass on to consideration of the Requiem Mass. "Why do some Catholics spend money on a grand funeral and neglect to have Holy Mass offered?"

II. The Requiem Mass.--In the Requiem Mass the Church hushes the voice of praise; all is supplication, awe and self-abasement in view of judgment and the nothingness of man. Fitness of the Gregorian chant for expressing these sentiments. Introit, Prayer, Gradual; Dies Irae; Epistle and Gospel; Secret. Omission of the blessing.

III. The Absolutions and Burial.--Meaning of absolution in this connection. Description of the rite. The procession to the grave. Committal of the body to the earth.

IV. Cremation.--Reasons why the Church forbids this practice, vis.: Pagan origin of cremation. Present connection with materialism and irreligion. Indecency of thus treating what was the temple of the Holy Ghost. Impossibility after cremation of detecting poison or violence. Thus Christian charity and the interests of humanity are against cremation. Strictly forbidden by Leo XIII. in 1886.

Non-Catholics who are sometimes present at Catholic burials, not infrequently compare our burial service unfavorably with that of the Protestant Church, declaring it to be but a meagre performance when contrasted with what they term the dignified and apt "Order for the Burial of the Dead," contained in their Prayer Book. In the explanation that I now propose to give you of the rites with which the Church Catholic surrounds that last solemn act of the survivors toward a departed Christian, the committing of the body to that dust from which it sprang, we shall see whether this reproach is justified. In fact, by the expression that I have just used, I have hit upon the very misapprehension that causes Protestants sometimes to level that reproach against us. For, in truth, the committing to the earth of this poor clay of which our bodily part is formed is but a small and secondary part of the office which the Church performs towards her departed children. We have a higher, nobler part, which does not die, which sprang from a higher source than the dust of the earth, which was breathed into our bodies by the breath of God Himself-- the soul, immortal and spiritual, the direct creation of the almighty Hand. It is with the soul that the Church is chiefly concerned in her burial rites; for she believes, as did the chosen people of old, that "it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins." It is this doctrine that makes the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant burial.

The Protestant burial service is beautiful and touching, we may readily admit. It is in part drawn from the Catholic Mass and Office for the Dead; but there are significant omissions. There is not one word of prayer for the soul of the deceased. It seems to be taken for granted that he has already entered into bliss. The idea of a place of purgation, the thought that few are so pure and holy at death as to be found worthy of an immediate entrance into heaven, to stand in the presence of the all-holy God, and at once become the companions of angels and saints the Spirits of the Just made perfect, seem not to have entered into the minds of the compilers of the Anglican Liturgy. Or, rather, must we not say that these considerations were deliberately excluded?

Not so with the Catholic rites. In these we find expressed, indeed, a great and consoling hope for the salvation of those who have died in the bosom of their Mother, the Catholic Church, Christ's Bride, whose children have God for their Father. She has aided them on their death-beds with her holy Sacraments; she has led them into the valley of the shadow of death and there given them into the keeping of Jesus; and she hopes, with a consoling assurance, for their eternal happiness. But she forgets not the awful sanctity of God. She remembers that "nothing defiled can enter heaven"; she knows that many shall be saved "yet so as by fire." She knows human frailty and human weakness, and she has no delusions concerning the dread truth that Divine justice has its claims as well as Divine mercy its pitiful indulgence. She realizes that a soul with a heavy load of offenses against God, even though they have been forgiven by means of the saving Sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction, is yet liable to a debt of temporal punishment; and, moreover, is imperfect and weighed down by evil habits and dispositions that must need be purged away before that soul can bear the blinding light of the presence of God. How beautifully is this expressed in the words of the angel in the great Poem, the "Dream of Gerontius":

". . . . Praise to His Name!
The eager spirit has darted from my hold,
And, with the intemperate energy of love,
Flies to the dear feet of Emmanuel;
But, ere it reach them, the keen sanctity,
Which with its effluence, like a glory, clothes
And circles round the Crucified, has serged,
And scorched, and shrivelled it; and now it lies
Passive and still before the awful Throne.
A happy, suffering soul! For it is safe,
Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God."

I. The Office of the Dead.--The full ceremonies of burial commence with the recitation of the "Office of the Dead," consisting of Vespers, Matins, and Lauds. The Vesper psalms with their antiphons, breathe hope, longing for that Supreme Good from whom sin keeps us, and earnest supplication on the part of the living for the soul of their departed fellow-Christian. "The sorrows of death have compassed me; and the perils of hell have found me; and I called upon the Name of the Lord. O Lord, deliver my soul. The Lord is merciful and just, and our God showeth mercy . . . I will please the Lord in the land of the living" (Ps. cxiv). "Wo is me, that my sojourning is prolonged! I have dwelt with the inhabitants of Cedar; my soul hath been long a sojourner" (Ps. cxix). "Out of the depths I have cried unto thee, O Lord, Lord hear my voice" (Ps. cxxix), and in the last psalm of the Vesper Office we have the note of hope, "The Lord will repay for me. Thy mercy, O Lord, endureth forever; O despise not the works of Thy hands" (Ps. cxxxvii). At the end of each psalm, instead of the Gloria Patri, we have the supplicating appeal: "Eternal Rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them," and the Office concludes with beautiful prayers, of which the last, at least, is familiar to you all: "O God, the Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful; grant to the souls of Thy servants departed the remission of all their sins, that by pious supplications they may obtain that pardon which they have always desired."

After Vespers follows the Office of Matins and Lauds. All these offices, when possible, should be recited in presence of the corpse, which is brought into the church for that purpose. Matins consists of three divisions, called "Nocturnes." Each Nocturne consists of three Psalms and three Lessons taken from Holy Scripture. The Lessons in the Office of the Dead are taken from the Book of Job; those passages being selected in which the holy man laments the miseries of his afflicted condition, and begs the mercy of God, whose chastising hand has fallen so heavily upon him. His words are full of sad recognition of the nothingness of man and the vanity of human life; the uncertainty of fortune, and the terror of the Divine vengeance upon sin. At the same time that God who avenges sin, is still a God of mercy who will not be angry forever. "Spare me, O God, for my days are nothing . . . . I have sinned; what shall I do to thee, O Keeper of men? Why hast Thou set me opposite Thee, and I am become burdensome to myself? Why dost Thou not remove my sin, and why dost Thou not take away my iniquity?" (Job vii). "I will say to God: Do not condemn me; tell me why Thou judgest me so . . . Remember, I beseech Thee, that Thou hast made me as the clay, and Thou wilt bring me into the dust again? . . . Suffer me, therefore, that I may lament my sorrow a little" (Job x).

After each lesson is recited a Responsory, in which, often in the very words of Scripture, the Church gathers up the teaching and sentiment of the Psalms and Lessons and impresses upon us the feelings of her own mind, mingling with her words pious aspirations from the living for their own souls, and touching appeals to the Divine mercy on behalf of the dead. "Do Thou, O Lord, who didst raise Lazarus from the tomb, give rest and pardon to them, who wilt come to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire." "Alas, O Lord, that I have sinned much in my life. What shall I do, miserable man that I am? Whither shall I flee, but to Thee, O my God. Have mercy upon me when Thou comest in that last day. My soul is exceeding troubled, but do Thou, O Lord, help me?" "I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." The Office of Lauds, which follows Matins, is similar to Vespers in its general arrangement, and full of the same expressive and instructive mingling of prayer for the dead, of warning and supplication for the living, with holy dread of the Divine judgments and consoling hope in God's mercy that characterizes the whole of the rites for the final obsequies, and form an inimitable example of liturgical beauty, solemnity and impressiveness.

But we must pass on to the central act of the funeral rites of the Catholic Church, without which they would be shorn of more than half their efficacy for the living and the dead. I mean, of course, the Requiem Mass, in which the Holy Sacrifice of Christ's Body and Blood is offered for the souls of those who have gone before us. Why is it, dear breathren, that Catholics will spend great sums of money upon flowers, and a grand funeral, which can do no good whatever to the departed, and yet grudge the alms for Masses that would hasten the entrance of their dear ones into the bliss of heaven? It is surely not necessary for me to prove to you that of all things that can be done for the relief of the suffering souls in Purgatory, the offering of holy Mass is unspeakably the most efficacious. Will flowers, and a long line of carriages, and a funeral feast, and rich mourning costumes, give any consolation to those who are agonizing in Purgatory, and longing, with an intense agony of baffled love, for that God who alone can give them any peace, and from whom they are kept away by stains that you could remove by having the holy Mass said for them? I do not condemn that proper decency which respect and love for the departed rightly demand in the carrying out of funerals; but I do condemn useless ostentation which too often has for its motive to make good appearance before the world. Should we Catholics be less anxious for our departed than was the pious Judas Machabeus, who, as we read in Holy Scripture, after a great battle against the enemies of God's people, "making a gathering, sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead?" (II. Mach. xii, 43). It is a poor piety and a weak affection that will strew flowers upon the grave where rests the body, and yet deprive the soul of that refreshment, light, and peace which the Holy Sacrifice will procure.

II. The Requiem Mass.--Let us glance now at the central rite of our Catholic obsequies, the Requiem Mass, offered for the repose of the soul of the defunct. You are doubtless familiar, by experience, with the differences in the ceremonial of Mass for the dead which distinguish it from an ordinary Mass. Awe-struck in the presence of death, with the silent corpse, that sad and vivid reminder of what we must all come to, laid before God's altar, the Church hushes for this occasion the voice of praise. The sacred ministers are vested in black; the Alleluia, the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis are not heard. From beginning to end of the Mass we hear only the voice of supplication. In this solemn rite that trembling awe of judgment to come, those earnest prayers for mercy on the departed soul, those awe-inspiring prophecies of the last great day and of the dreadful Judge coming in power and majesty to judge the world by fire, those humble expressions of self-abasement and acknowledgments of the utter nothingness of man, which we have already heard in the office, reach their climax. It is scarcely necessary for me to dwell upon the fitness of that sublime chant which the Church uses in the Requiem Mass for the expression of these sentiments. This fitness is acknowledged by all. It is generally conceded that no composer, however eminent, has succeeded in equalling the Church's own music as a vehicle for the solemn words of the Mass for the dead.

We will now glance briefly at this great liturgical drama of life and death, of judgment and divine wrath, of tender hope and pathetic appeal.

For the Introit, we have that familiar prayer, "Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them," followed by words from the sixty-fourth Psalm, which tell us of the last end of all mankind, and carry us at once to the next world and the immediate presence of God: "A hymn, O Lord, becometh Thee in Sion; and a vow shall be paid to Thee in Jerusalem. O, hear my prayer; all flesh shall come to Thee." After the "Kyrie Eleison," with its repeated cry for mercy to the Adorable Trinity, the priest passes on at once to the prayer, in which the name of the departed is mentioned, that name by which he was baptized, that name known to God, without whose knowledge not even a sparrow falls to the ground, that name which has many times and oft been repeated in intercessory prayer by Mary and the saints and the Guardian Angel, who but now has presented the soul of him who owned it at the feet of God.

The Epistle is from the first of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, and bids us not give way to a pagan grief at the death of him whom we loved, telling us of the glory to come when we shall ascend to heaven in company with Jesus: "We will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them who have slept through Jesus will God bring with Him. . . . for the Lord Himself shall come down from heaven with commandment, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God," and "we shall be taken up together . . . to meet Christ . . . and so shall we be always with the Lord. Therefore, comfort ye one another with these words" (I. Thess. iv, 12, seq.).

The Gradual and Tract repeat the prayer for mercy and for deliverance from those bound of sin that hold the soul from the immediate fruition of heaven; and then follows that marvelous sequence, the Dies Irae, unsurpassed for its religious pathos and power to move the hearts of all hearers. It is, in truth, at once a sublime prayer, a most impressive sermon, and a meditation that cannot fail to move and to convert. Therein we seem to see the great Throne set, and the Judge thereon; the open book, the multitudes of men on the right hand and the left; the hosts of angels, the dreadful Accuser, the roaring flames of the eternal prison-house, the awful terror of the lost. But the hymn finishes with words of hope in the mercy of Him who, though our Judge, is yet our loving Savior.

Time will not allow me to quote from this great liturgical hymn, but I would earnestly recommend you all to use it frequently in your private devotions. Its truth, its beauty, its spirit of simple faith, its awful warnings, its lesson of humble self-abasement cannot fail to exercise the most salutary influence upon yourselves if you then familiarize yourself with its holy and sublime sentiments. The gospel is from St. John, and gives us in our divine Lord's words the doctrine that He so solemnly and emphatically taught concerning the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection to life eternal of those who have done well, the resurrection to judgment and condemnation of those who have done evil. 'The Offertory recalls to us how from the beginning the promise of eternal life has been made to those who have believed, and speaks of Abraham, that great example of faith, who merited to be chosen as the forefather of God's people. We, as the apostle tells us, are the spiritual children of Abraham, who himself was only saved through faith in the Redeemer to come whom we, too, worship, and under whose new dispensation it is our happiness to live and die. God is entreated that the great Archangel Michael may conduct the souls of the departed into His holy light, and that He will receive the sacrifice and prayers now being offered for them.

In the "secret" appeal is made to the Divine mercy in virtue of the Christian name and profession of the departed, that as God "has granted him the merit of Christian faith, so also He will bestow upon him its reward." Then the Mass proceeds as usual to that supreme moment when the Divine Victim is lifted up before the Throne of the Father to plead for both living and dead. At the conclusion of the Mass no blessing is given; it is as if the Church were too much concerned with the welfare of the dead to bless the living. Also, instead of the usual "Ite missa est," or "Benedicamas Domino," is substituted the prayer "Requiescant in Pace," "May they rest in Peace. Amen."

III. The Absolutions and Burial.--The Holy Sacrifice being finished, the priest puts off the chasuble and maniple, and assumes the black cope, after which he proceeds to give what are known as the Absolutions. This word must not be misunderstood as if any pardon for unrepented sin can be given by the Church after death. Though, as you are well aware, this is not so, yet the Church's official prayers, if I may use that word, the prayers, that is, which she offers up as Christ's holy Bride, and exercising Christ's own priestly office of intercession through her consecrated ministers, are of special efficacy in obtaining release for the souls in Purgatory. This applies, of course, to all the prayers of the obsequies from beginning to end.

The "Absolutions" begin with a prayer for the living: "Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death in that terrible day when the heavens and the earth are moved, when Thou comest to judge the world by fire." Note, dear brethren, how the use of the present tense brings vividly before us that day of wrath, as if it were actually come. "I tremble and fear while that judgment comes and the coming wrath. Oh, that day, that day of anger and calamity and misery! Oh, day, great and exceeding bitter; when Thou comest to judge the world by fire."

After the Kyrie Eleison and the "Pater Noster," during the recitation of which the officiant sprinkles with holy water and incenses the corpse, the final prayer is said before the mournful procession sets out for the cemetery to commit the body to that earth from which man came. At the beginning of this part of the obsequies are recited the Psalms De Profundis, "Out of the Depths," and the Royal Penitent's prayer for pardon, the "Miserere." Then follows an invocation of the saints and angels. "Come to his assistance, ye saints of God, meet him, ye angels of the Lord, receiving his soul, offering it in the sight of the Most High. May Christ receive thee, who has called thee, and may the angels receive thee into Abraham's bosom." It will be understood that the order of these prayers and ceremonies varies according as the full rites that I have described are carried out or not. While the body is actually being carried to the grave, the following antiphon, full of Christian hope and the sense of fellowship with the saints of God, is sung: "May the angels lead thee into Paradise; may the martyrs receive thee at thy coming, and bring thee into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, mayest thou have eternal rest."

On arriving at the grave, if it is not blessed, the priest blesses it, and the body is lowered. The rites then conclude with the singing of the Benedictus, with an antiphon consisting of those words of Jesus Christ which are the very light of the grave, dispelling fear and sorrow, and taking away the sting of death: "I am the resurrection and life; he that believeth in Me, though he be dead, yet shall he live; and every one that liveth and believeth in Me shall not die forever."

Once when the Kyrie and Pater Noster are said, the body incensed and sprinkled, and a final prayer for mercy uttered, and all is finished that Christian love and respect can do for that earthly frame which was once the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, and the recipient of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Cremation.--This last thought, dear brethren, sums up for us the reasons why the Church forbids to all her children the practice of cremation or burning of the dead. Does not our Christian Catholic instinct shrink from such a thing? Let me briefly draw out, in conclusion, the motives of the Church's action in this respect. To begin with, cremation was a pagan custom, unknown to the Jews, God's chosen people, under the old law. In this the Jews were followed from the first by the Christian Church, in imitation also of the mode of burial of our Lord Himself. As a recent writer has said [see "Catholic Encyclopedia," Art. "Cremation"]: "Cremation, in the majority of cases to-day, is knit up with circumstances that make it a public profession of irreligion and materialism. Freemasons first obtained official recognition of this custom from various governments. The Church has opposed from the beginning a practice which has been used chiefly by opponents of the faith. She is justified by reasons of Christian charity and the interests of humanity. It is unseemly that the human body, once the living temple of God, the instrument of heavenly virtue, sanctified so often by the Sacraments, should finally be subjected to a treatment that filial piety, fraternal and conjugal love, or even mere friendship, seems to revolt against as inhuman." Again, "Another argument against cremation, and drawn from medico-legal sources, lies in this: that cremation destroys all signs of violence or traces of poison, and make examination impossible; whereas a judicial autopsy is always possible after exhumation, even of some months."

The arguments in favor of the practice from supposed reasons of public health are not supported by any unanimity of opinion on the part of medical and professional scientific men, and are shown by the same writer whom I have quoted above to be without solid foundation in fact. More than one Pope has absolutely forbidden the practice of cremation, and the late holy Father Leo XIII., of happy memory, issued in 1886 a decree in which he forbade membership in cremation societies, and declared the unlawfulness of demanding cremation for one's own body or that of another. The sentiment of the civilized world in general is at one with that of the Church in this matter; and we Catholics can trust herein the Christian instinct and the authoritative guidance of the rulers of God's Church. Pagan in its origin, adopted now by those who do not believe in the resurrection of the body, the burning of the dead is an outrage upon the sentiments of nature and Christianity alike.

"He is not dead," said our divine Lord of Lazarus, "but sleepeth"; and death to a Christian is but a sleep. Committing the bodies of her children to the earth, the Church recognizes the origin from when they sprang, and in beautiful symbolism laying the departed tenderly to rest in its narrow bed, typifies that sleep of the mortal remains of the just from which the trumpet of God's angel shall arouse them to reign with Christ.


Cremation: Cremation is to be reprobated (1203, 1). To wish it is unlawful, and to stipulate it in one's will must be considered as not binding, when Catholic funeral services are to be held (1203, 2). Whoever while living commands his body to be cremated shall be denied ecclesiastical burial (1240, 1, 5). Any one who would force a priest to give such a one ecclesiastical burial is thereby excommunicated (2339).

Anathema/Excommunication: Excommunication is a censure which excludes a person from communion with the faithful (2257). An excommunicated person may not administer the Sacraments or sacramentals (C. 2261). Neither may he receive any Sacrament nor (after a judicial sentence) a sacramental. He is likewise excluded from ecclesiastical burial if he dies without having manifested signs of repentance (if a declaratory or condemnatory sentence has been passed) (C. 2260). Furthermore he does not share in any indulgences, suffrages or general prayers of the Church. But the faithful may pray for him, and a priest may celebrate Mass for him privately (Cf. 526 and C. 2262). An excommunicated person may not exercise any act of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, etc. (C. 2264). Cf. also 417 and 454.

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On the Denial of Christian Burial
by Rev. Spirago, Francis, 1899

Christian burial is denied to the unbaptized, to non-Catholics, and to Catholics who are known to have died in mortal sin. Catholics to whom Christian burial is denied are: Suicides (unless they are insane at the time of death and therefore irresponsible); duellists, and any persons who obstinately refuse to receive the last sacraments, or who have not for years past fulfilled the Easter precept. In the two last cases the matter is generally laid before the bishop. The denial of Christian burial to bad Catholics is not intended as a sentence of damnation, but merely as the public expression of abhorrence of their sin, and for the purpose of deterring others from falling into the same sin. An association would be little thought of if one of its members followed to the grave a fellow-member who had been a disgrace to that society; so it would be derogatory to the Church and her ministers if she were to celebrate the obsequies of an unfaithful Catholic. The Church also refuses ecclesiastical burial to non-Catholics, because she holds to the principle expressed by Pope Innocent III. in the words: "It is impossible for us to hold communion after their death with those who have not been in communion with us during their life. To do so would give rise to the idea that all religions were alike. It would destroy the prestige of the Church, and injure the souls of men. The maxim of the Church is that the ground she has consecrated is the last resting-place of her children, and none but members of her family have a right to be interred therein." Yet she permits non-Catholic relatives to be laid in a family vault. For suicides a portion of the cemetery which has not been consecrated is set apart.

Prayer on the Day of Burial

Lord we pray Thee to absolve the soul of Thy servant (or. Thine handmaid) N. (here express the name) who hath died unto the world, that he (or, she) may live unto Thee. And wheresoever while he (or, she) walked among men he (or, she) hath transgressed through the weakness of the flesh, do Thou in the exceeding tenderness of Thy mercy forgive and put away. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre

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