|ROME, 18 AUG. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Who can be buried by the Church, and who can a burial Mass be said
for? If a faithful of the Catholic Church is not baptized before he
dies, but had the desire to be baptized, can a burial Mass be celebrated
for him? If a Catholic was baptized, received first Communion and was
confirmed, but failed to have his marriage blessed before he dies, can
Mass be celebrated for him also? What about a Church member who
contributed financially over the years to the Church and has held
positions in the Church, but after his death there was a doubt of
whether he had been baptized? Can he be given a Church burial, or can
Mass be celebrated for him?
D.A., Accra, Ghana
A: The Church is usually generous toward the deceased, within limits.
First, we must distinguish between offering a funeral Mass and
celebrating a Mass whose intention is the eternal repose of a particular
Since the latter is basically the private intention of the priest,
albeit offered at the request of a particular person, and since there
are practically no limitations as to whom we may pray for, almost any
intention can be admitted. In cases that might cause scandal, especially
if the person were denied a funeral Mass, it would not be prudent to
make this intention public.
A funeral Mass on the other hand is basically a public act in which the
Church intercedes for the deceased by name. A funeral Mass is one which
uses the formulas found in the Roman Missal and the ritual for funerals.
Some of these formulas may be used even if the deceased's body is not
Because of its public nature the Church's public intercession for a
departed soul is more limited. A funeral Mass can be celebrated for most
Catholics, but there are some specific cases in which canon law requires
the denial of a funeral Mass. Canons 1184-1185 say:
"Canon 1184 §1. Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death,
the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals:
1/ notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;
2/ those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to
3/ other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals
without public scandal of the faithful.
"§2. If any doubt occurs, the local ordinary is to be consulted, and his
judgment must be followed.
"Canon 1185. Any funeral Mass must also be denied a person who is
excluded from ecclesiastical funerals."
In fact, these strictures are rarely applied. In part, this is because
many sinners do show signs of repentance before death.
Likewise, the canons are open to some interpretation. In No. 1184 §1
notorious would mean publicly known. Therefore someone who had
abandoned the faith and joined some other group would be denied a
funeral; someone who harbored private doubts or disagreements would not.
Cases of those who choose cremation for reasons contrary to the faith
are extremely rare and are hard to prove (see the follow-up in our
column of Nov. 29, 2005).
The most delicate cases are those in No. 1184 §1.3. Many canonists say
that for denial of a funeral the person must be both widely known to be
living in a state of grave sin and that holding a Church funeral would
About a year ago in Italy the Church denied an ecclesiastical funeral
for a nationally known campaigner for euthanasia who requested and
obtained the removal of his life-support system. In this case the
request for a funeral for someone who was only nominally Catholic was in
itself a publicity stunt for the organization behind the campaign.
Likewise, someone subject to excommunication or interdict (for example,
a Catholic abortionist) would be denied a funeral.
Given the severity of the requirements for denial of an ecclesiastical
funeral, people in irregular marriages and suicides should not usually
be denied a funeral. In such cases denial of the funeral is more likely
than not to be counterproductive and cause unnecessary misunderstanding
and bitterness. The Church intercedes for the soul and leaves final
judgment to God.
Analogous to the funeral Mass are anniversary Masses which are somewhat
in between an intention and a funeral Mass. Although, strictly speaking,
these would not fall under the prohibitions mentioned in Canon 1184,
such Masses should not be given publicity if the person had been denied
With respect to non-Catholic Christians the local bishop may permit a
funeral in some cases as specified in the Ecumenical Directory 120: "In
the prudent judgment of the local Ordinary, the funeral rites of the
Catholic Church may be granted to members of a non-Catholic Church or
ecclesial Community, unless it is evidently contrary to their will and
provided that their own minister is unavailable, and that the general
provisions of Canon Law do not forbid it (see Can. 1183,3)."
Regarding the first and third cases presented by our reader, we can also
refer to Canon 1183:
"Canon 1183 §1. When it concerns funerals, catechumens must be counted
among the Christian faithful.
"§2. The local ordinary can permit children whom the parents intended to
baptize but who died before baptism to be given ecclesiastical
This would apply both to the person who had intended to receive baptism
but was prevented by death as well as to the person whose baptism was
uncertain but was active in the Church.
In the first case the funeral liturgy may be celebrated as usual, only
omitting language referring directly to the sacrament. The same would
apply to the second case, but omission of mentioning the sacrament
should be done only if the fact that the person had never been baptized
could be established with some degree of certainty.
The foundation for this is the doctrine of baptism of desire in which
the Church believes that a soul who explicitly desired the sacrament
will receive all the graces of baptism at the moment of death, except
for the sacramental character. This last is not given because it is
directly orientated toward the exercise of worship during the course of
Finally, Catholic funerals are not celebrated for non-Christians.
* * *
Follow-up: Funeral Masses [9-1-2009]
In connection with our Aug. 18 piece on funeral Masses, a reader from
the Marshall Islands wrote: "There was a time in the past that in
funeral Masses, the 'Exchange of Peace' (before the Lamb of God) was
omitted. The reason for it is that the exchange of peace is a joyful
expression of greeting one another but somehow discordant in the time of
death, the loss of someone so dear to the family."
First, I would say that the reason behind the exchange of peace is above
all to share the peace of Christ which we are about to receive from the
altar in Communion. It is true that in some places it has become a
joyful free-for-all, but this is not its true meaning or the correct way
of carrying out this rite.
If properly understood, therefore, not only is there no contradiction
between the rite of peace and a funeral, but a dignified and composed
sharing of Christ's peace can actually be a source of spiritual
consolation to the bereaved family.
This is one reason why the Holy See approved the exemption, proposed by
the U.S. bishops, to the general rule that the priest not leave the
sanctuary during the sign of peace. Thus the General Instruction of the
Roman Missal, No. 154, says:
"The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always
remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In
the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on
special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or
when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace
to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord
with the decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a
sign that expresses peace, communion, and charity. While the sign of
peace is being given, one may say, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum
(The peace of the Lord be with you always), to which the response is