Funeral Prayers

Millais_-_Das_Tal_der_StilleImage credit.

One complaint from hard-core Catholics on funerals is that in the last half-century, the liturgy has become rather mushy on the topic of the last things. Admittedly, homilists get the brunt of this criticism, like here. Other criticism, like this one, focuses on the ignorance of people attending:

Pastoral experience tells me that upwards of 80% of funeral attendees and in a very grave spiritual condition. Most of them are not serious about their spiritual life, they are not praying, they are not reading Scripture, they are not attending Mass or going to any service on Sundays, and many are in very serious and unrepented mortal sin. This is just a fact.

The percentage may be higher at a ball game, at the supermarket, or in a traffic jam. But it is not likely that a preacher will be well-received in such circumstances, even though the sin may be more grave. A minister can run off the rails trying to fix the world.

The Church does have a captive audience, so to speak, at funeral rites. Is it time for education on the last things? And if so, how effective might that be?


While traditionalist Catholics tout the values of the Dies Irae and such, I’ve been feeling in a contrary mood of late, and thought the concluding prayers of the intercessions give us insight as to what to expect at funerals.

Lord God,
giver of peace and healer of souls,
hear the prayers of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ,
and the voices of your people,
whose lives were purchased by the blood of the Lamb.
Forgive the sins of all who sleep in Christ
and grant them a place in the kingdom.

To me, this prayer seems to keep the right perspective. There is an acknowledgement that Jesus the High Priest (not just the Redeemer) intercedes on our behalf. The suggestion is also that the funeral liturgy itself is an act of Christ–which it is. The specific petition asked is that the Father forgive the sins of the dead and bring them into eternal life.

I suppose a good homily could be based just on this prayer. We are reminded first that God is aware of the greatest need at the moment of death: peace and healing. We are reminded that our prayers join with Christ’s intentions. We are reminded of salvation, and we offer a final direct prayer.

The other prayer in OCF 167 reads:

God, our shelter and our strength,
you listen in love to the cry of your people:
hear the prayers we offer for our departed brothers and sisters.
Cleanse them of their sins
and grant them the fullness of redemption.

This prayer is more straightforward, and implies a confidence in God’s love and mercy. The petitions are simple: hear the mourners and forgive the dead. Hmm, seems like sin is very much a part of the funeral liturgy. And more, that last clause is lifted right out of Psalm 130, one of Saint Augustine’s classic penitential psalms.

Sin is explicit in OCF 401:

O God,
Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful,
grant to the souls of your departed servants
release from all their sins.
Hear our prayers for those we love
and give them the pardon they have always desired.

ConsolationI suppose this prayer presumes belief on the part of the dead, and desire for forgiveness.

If the words on purgatory, hell, damnation, and judgment are muted, perhaps it is because these items are derivative of a more basic truth: salvation in Christ. And if funeral attendees are so ignorant, perhaps it is better to start with the basics: Jesus saves us and intercedes on our behalf. It is good to pray for the dead.

I’m disinclined to be directly critical of people who hope for heaven for their loved one or friend. Hope is a virtue. Much better than doubt, or even despair. (Image credit, right.)

Maybe instead, we should explore why people opt out of funerals altogether. I wonder how much of it is due to the muddled, overly-theological messages people hear. Maybe I think they need smartening up, but the reality is that religious book-learning isn’t going to save them. Only Jesus.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to Funeral Prayers

  1. charlesincenca says:

    If there is one thing, and one thing only chanted at “my” funeral, it would be the “Dies irae.” There is no more appropriate hymn to be prayed on behalf of my sinful soul that could be offered. Period.

    • Dick Martin says:

      This statement shows you ignorance of Scripture. Nothing after death can effect your Eternal destiny; No Hymn to be prayed on behalf of you sinful soul can be offered. The scripture teaches that you destiny is sealed. You have no more free will to apply. Depending on what you did with Jesus’s sacrifice, the ONLY way to Heaven is through Him. ” I am the way the truth ,and the life”. 1 John 5:21 says those who have Jesus have Eternal life; those who don’t have Eternal Death. You better get it correct before you last breath because no lighting candles, incense, No such thing as prayers for the dead ever existed. Purgatory is a fairy tail.Look up the word; ” Propitiation ” Receive The gift- FREELY and you’ll make it. It’s not by works. Love in Jesus , Dick..

  2. Liam says:

    “I’ve been feeling in a contrary mood of late,”‘

    Pray tell, how recently were you in a sympathetic mood to such opinions? That surprised me.

  3. Fariba says:

    Good post! I agree with you. People are drawn to faith more effectively through preaching the love of God in Jesus Christ than holding the pit of Hell under them. Likewise, sin’s ugliness is better shown by contrasting it with the beauty and perfect love of Christ than by threatening people with judgement.

  4. David D. says:

    When my mother died a few years back, Monsignor “warned” me that there was (usually) no sermon at a traditional requiem. I told him that my mother would have been very grateful. Mencken’s oft-quoted observations of the Catholic Mass seem especially true with respect to the Requiem.

  5. Melody says:

    Dies Irae, no thank you. Sung in Latin, it’s not so bad, but if you ever look at the translation, sheesh! The practice of preaching salvation to the backsliders at a funeral is a fine ol’ evangelical tradition which we don’t need to copy. I agree with you that the practice of opting out of funerals altogether is a matter of concern. Hellfire and brimstone homilies will surely not help that trend any. I think one of the best things people can do is put their wishes in writing, and communicate with their families about the arrangements they want. Sometimes survivors don’t have a clue what their loved ones would have wanted, so thy end up not doing much of anything except keeping ashes in an inappropriate place, or scattering them, equally inappropriately.

  6. Liam says:

    Just because (the bells ring at the 2:50 mark, and the brass intone the Dies Irae at the 3:17 mark):

  7. Dick Martin says:

    1 Timothy 1:9-11
    knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
    for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine,
    according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.

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