Finding solace and courage in the Mass of Christian Burial

October 27, 2015

While it is difficult to think of one's own mortality, the faithful should not be afraid to confront death. "Death is just a change, it is not an end," said Gus Hollis, director of Catholic Cemeteries at the Archdiocese. "Looking at death in context of faith, your life goes on with God and it is not broken."

When ill, a person should request the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick and call upon others to assist them as they prepare for death.

“Through the working of the Holy Spirit, the Sacrament is no longer just conferred on the terminally ill, but to all those suffering from illness or disease,” said Deacon Leonard Lockett at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Downtown Houston. “The richness from the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has a dual application of blessings, which it bestows. The individual is blessed emotionally by the visit of the Church’s minister, but more importantly, the sacrament bestows a spiritual blessing conferred through the anointing and reception of the Eucharist.”

Deacon Lockett said the minister’s visit also provides a blessed occasion for communal prayer between the minister and family.

“We must always be cognizant of those around us that are suffering and dying,” he said. “Many of those individuals have no one to turn to in their last days. We must remember that Our Lord’s focus, during His earthly ministry, was directed towards the suffering, dying and ill of His day. If we are to be true followers of Jesus, the Nazarene, we too must address the needs and concerns of our ailing brothers and sisters in their hour of despair.”

For those who are about to depart from this life, the Church offers the person Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist as Viaticum (food for the journey) given at the end of life. The special words proper to Viaticum are added: “May the Lord Jesus protect you and lead you to everlasting life. Amen.”

“When we are confronted with the reality of death, we must also allow ourselves to be confronted with the reality of our Faith in the power and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior,” Deacon Lockett said. “Our Faith in the promise of an eternal life is a ‘reality,’ not a maybe or I hope so or some wishful thinking – but a reality. Our Faith opens our minds to the whole concept of life, death and what happens after death. Only in the light of our Faith can we begin to understand what happens to us when we cease to exist in this earthly realm.”

In the context of that reality, it is important for the faithful to make their wishes known, including funeral arrangements, so they may be carried out. When a death occurs and the arrangements have not been made in advance, loved ones may not be prepared or capable of handling financial burden. 

Hollis said the best way to ensure a person’s wishes are carried out is to actually make funeral arrangements with the funeral home and cemetery of one’s choice. The person can also preplan the funeral Mass and the parish will have it prepared.

“You should present copies of your arrangements with your loved ones,” he said. “My wife Lori said it best, ‘Preplanning our funeral is frightening because we confront our own mortality. But preplanning takes so much of the burden off family members. Fewer decisions have to be made by those who are already grieving. The financial burden may be lessened or removed completely when plans precede need.’”

While ministering as a pastoral associate, Deacon Lockett said he witnessed far too many times life-long Catholics being buried without the “grace of a Mass of Christian Burial” and in many cases in a church of another tradition.

“This scenario is very common with seniors of our Faith Community and their children or grandchildren who may or may have not been members of the Catholic Church at one time,” he said. “The parents or grandparents dies and leaves no clear or definitive directives on their final arrangements with their family members. So the children and grandchildren make the decision for where their parents or grandparents will be buried … regardless of the truth and realization they know their parents and grandparents were devoted Catholics.”

To better educate the public, churches host workshops, pass out literature or reference documents on Catholic mandates that outline end of life decisions, burial and cremation. The Church prefers that individuals be buried at a Catholic Cemetery because it is considered Holy ground.

“It is always tragic for me to read an obituary of an active, life-long Catholic who was not provided a Mass of Christian Burial by their surviving family members,” said Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz.

The Catholic Church strongly encourages Mass of Christian Burial as a way for the community to gather together in prayer with family and friends of the deceased to gain strength from God and each other during a difficult time of transition. Many Church leaders agree that there is a shift in more Catholics — or their families — choosing cremation over burial of a body. There are no caskets, expenses are reduced, and scattered families and busy lives are often cited as reasons that make cremation more appealing. And in doing so, some families are not following accepted practice once their loved ones are cremated.

“The Church does not prohibit cremation, but it is still the Church’s teaching that the body should be buried or entombed in the Church custom, which includes a physical body,” said Deacon Lockett.

That’s because the body is a temple in the eyes of faith and, as such, should be present in order to perform a Mass of Christian Burial, complete with Catholic funeral rites and Christian symbols that typically rest on or are placed near the coffin during the funeral Liturgy, he said.

“A funeral closely mirrors a Baptism because an Easter candle and a pall are placed on the casket to remind us of Baptism, and the casket is sprinkled with holy water to remind us of when we were baptized,” Deacon Lockett said. “It is a correlation between when we come into the Church and when we leave the Church” through death.

A funeral Liturgy also allows the faith community to give praise and thanks for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to ask God’s mercy on the deceased and to find strength through the celebration, said Archdiocesan Office of Worship Director Sandra Higgins.

“The final commendation and farewell is the time the community entrusts the beloved deceased into the merciful arms of God,” she said. 

Office of Family Life Transitions

Family Life Transitions is dedicated to assist persons across the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston coping with loss and unforeseen challenges within the family, including bereavement. The website,, includes a list of parish-based support groups around the Archdiocese. 
While not all parishes have parish-based support groups, “We are continually working with parishes, providing them with training to equip them to establish a bereavement support group at their church,” said Elsa Aguilera, associate director of Family Life Ministry. To learn more, visit the the website online at or call 713-741-8708. 

Symbols of Christian Funerals

Easter Candle
The Easter candle reminds the faithful of Christ’s undying presence among them, of his victory over sin and death and of their share in that victory by virtue of their initiation.

Holy Water
Blessed or holy water reminds the assembly of the saving waters of Baptism. In the rite of reception of the body at the church, its use calls to mind the deceased’s Baptism and initiation into the community of faith.

Incense is used during the funeral rites as a sign of honor to the body of the deceased, which through Baptism became the temple of the Holy Spirit.

A pall may be placed over the coffin when it is received at the church. A reminder of the baptismal garment of the deceased, the pall is a sign of the Christian dignity of the person. The use of the pall also signifies that all are equal in the eyes of God.

A Bible may be placed on the coffin as a sign that Christians live by the word of God and that fidelity to that word leads to eternal life.