252. The Roman Liturgy, like other Latin and Oriental Liturgies, contains many and varied forms of suffrage for the dead.
The rite of Christian exequies consists traditionally of three parts. Because of the profoundly changed circumstances of life in the greater urban conurbations, these are often reduced to two or even only one part.
Often reduced, yes; but this is not ideal for the Church or the mourners.
Christian exequies: what are these? Simply the stages of the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF): Vigil, Funeral Mass, Committal. I’d like to tease out each of these three stages in the funeral rites over the next few days.
Why do Christians pray in vigil? The DPPL gives four reasons.
The rite of Christian exequies are:(Cf. OCF Praenotanda 4)
• prayer vigil at the home of the deceased, or somewhere else as circumstances permit, during which family, friends and members of the Christian community
- gather to pray to God in suffrage,
- to hear the “the words of life eternal”, and in their light, to see beyond this world by contemplating the risen Christ in faith;
- to comfort those who mourn the deceased;
- and to express Christian solidarity in accordance with the words of the Apostle “be sad with those in sorrow” (Rm 12,15)
(This vigil, which is still called a “wake” in English speaking countries, is an act of faith in the resurrection, even though it may have lost all theological and historical significance, and an imitation of the women in the Gospel who came to anoint the body of Christ, and became the first witnesses of the resurrection.);
Note the preference for a prayer vigil in a home. We’ve lost the sense of that in the US, where funeral homes provide admirable and devoted service to families. But in some ways we’ve lost something by not gathering in places where people lived and loved. Some parishes celebrate vigils on church premises–and sometimes that works well.
Note reasons two and three. We read Scripture, and hopefully sing it. We also comfort one another–this is where storytelling (not eulogies, necessarily) have a proper place. We speak of the dead not to lift them to sainthood in some wishful exercise, but to remind ourselves of the person we’ve lost and to share a mutual hope in our eventual reunion.
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site.