ASK FATHER: Viewing of bodies in church in front of Blessed Sacrament

From a reader…


I was wondering on how the practice of having viewings before a funeral Mass in Church began? It seems that this practice is becoming more and more common. It seems to me that church viewings are inappropriate because of all of the talking and carrying-on by the “mourners” which is disrespectful to the Blessed Sacrament and many do not even realize that they are in Church and in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Can anything be done about this? Should the Blessed Sacrament be removed if a family wishes to have their loved one’s viewing/wake in Church prior to the funeral Mass?

Ah, the ever-evolving and changing practices of bereavement and burial…

In the not-too-distant past, the body of the deceased was laid out in the front parlor of the family home and family and friends would visit, pay their respects, and keep vigil over the lamented loved one. They would “wake” their loved one. The morning of the funeral, the carriage would pull up, led by horses with black plumes, and the corpse would be carried to the parish church, followed by a train of mourners. After the Requiem Mass, the deceased would be carried by the pall bearers out back to the parish cemetery and lovingly put to rest, and the mourners would either return to the home or down to the parish basement for a light luncheon and reminiscence.

Then funeral homes arrived on the scene. Many funeral homes do a marvelous job of assisting families at a very difficult point in time. But we can’t forget, funeral homes are businesses. They have an interest in maximizing profits. Funeral homes often encourage family members to forgo churches altogether, and to have the funeral right there in the mortuary, with a priest or deacon coming in to lead a service without the Holy Mass. Others want to bring the deceased to the church as quickly as possible, thus to open up one of the chapels in the funeral home for another paying customer. Again, without the intention to disparage each and every funeral home and their often invaluable services, but some of the developments in burial and bereavement practices seem like they have less and less to do with the corporal work of mercy which is burying the dead.

If the body must be brought to the church before the funeral Mass, it really should be placed somewhere apart from the sanctuary. If there’s a chapel towards the entrance of the church, that would be ideal. Even in the baptistery, it might make some sense (throughout the funeral Mass, much mention is made of the ties between baptism and death). Even there, in a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is not present, people should be assisted to remember that they are in a church: maintain a respectful attitude, quiet voices, and children should not be allowed to run around helter-skelter.

If the deceased is in the main body of the church, where the Blessed Sacrament is present, all the more should people be encouraged to be respectful. I don’t think the Blessed Sacrament should be removed: it’s not the Blessed Sacrament which is in the wrong place here!

How can we instill in people, including non-Catholics who may be attending and who know little about our sense of the sacred, a sense of quiet, reflective awe whilst in the home of the Lord of Life?  That’s a good question. Signs in the vestible are useful, as are ushers willing to remind people – politely – of quiet and decorum, a schola chanting Gregorian Chant, Latin psalms, for the deceased while the visitation takes place….

Let’s not forget the good example of well-mannered, well-catechized Catholics.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. ppb says:

    The problem is that many people have no sense of decorum anymore. However, there are things that can be done to give them a good example, as Fr. Z mentioned. I recently attended a wake and funeral at which the deceased had a Knights of Columbus honor guard. It really made the atmosphere reverent and respectful.

  2. Kent Wendler says:

    For my part I can only say what happened with respect to my mother who passed away just slightly more than one year ago. Since her death was not entirely unexpected most of the arrangements were made ahead of time. She was in nursing care near us in Illinois at the time of her final illness. The (blessed) family plot, where my father and sister are buried is in Kansas. The mortuary which has handled family funerals in the past was in one county, but the church for the funeral Mass was in the adjacent county to the east. I handled most of the final arrangements, including the vigil on the day previous to the funeral.

    I selected a casket with the Sacred Heart of Jesus imprinted on the inside. I really wanted the Divine Mercy image, but the casket makers apparently are not aware of it. I had also ordered a number of Divine Mercy leaflets to be distributed for the recitation of the chaplet at the way, followed later by the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary chaplet. The problem is that very, very few came to the wake. As one of the last surviving members of her generation there were few remaining who wished to come to her wake.

    The next day, her remains were removed to the church before the Mass, for viewing in the vestibule. Since it was her home county, many more people came for that. The casket was closed and moved to the center aisle for the funeral Mass. I think it went quite well. There were Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and non-believers there.

  3. John Nolan says:

    The custom (in England at any rate) is for the body to be received into the church on the evening before the funeral and remain there overnight, at the front of the nave with the feet towards the altar if a lay person. The coffin is covered with a black pall and flanked by six tall unbleached candles. Nowadays the pall and candles are often omitted, but I remember as an altar boy serving the early morning Mass with a corpse present; the actual Requiem Mass being later in the morning.

    There is a bizarre custom in the USA and elsewhere of having the funeral Mass in the presence of the cremated remains – rather like interment before the funeral. Incidentally, it is only a Requiem Mass if it includes the Introit Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine; most Novus Ordo funeral masses don’t.

  4. yatzer says:

    I have no idea how to do a Catholic funeral Mass. I came into the church as an adult from a Protestant oriented family that always had funerals at the funeral parlor. My funeral may be interesting.

  5. Charivari Rob says:

    It is quite similar in Ireland, John Nolan, for the removal to the church the night before.

    I was with a church choir on a tour and sightseeing trip in Ireland a few years ago. We arrived one weekday in Killarney, where our itinerary called for singing for the regular late afternoon Mass at the Cathedral. Encountered a slight bump when it was discovered that the contact at the cathedral who had booked us was out of town for the week and hadn’t mentioned any of the arrangements to the remaining priest. The priest graciously welcomed us anyway and invited us to sing as planned, with the slightly apologetic caveat that a removal would be arriving at the Cathedral promptly after Mass. We sang, shrugged out of our choir robes, back into our coats, and had to exit through a side door as the dearly departed was rolled in. All in all, a lesson in humility and mortality that has stayed with me longer than many a homily I’ve heard at a funeral Mass.

  6. People are disrespectful in church at a viewing because they are disrespectful in church, period. Sad to say, where I live, the worst offenders are ushers, deacons and priests.

  7. gramma10 says:

    For my parents at different times and at different churches I chose to have the viewing at the church prior to mass.
    We had someone playing the flute and it was very quiet and respectful.
    Anyway, in my thinking, Jesus would want the people in His home gathering with Him there also.
    Funeral homes in my estimation are rather depressing. I love that Jesus is alive and present in the Holy Eucharist inviting us into His home to all pray and be in communion with each other at a difficult time.
    He embraces us and feels our pain also. The closer I am to Him at these times, the better!

  8. greenlight says:

    My grandmother was living in an apartment just down the street from St. Louis’ great Cathedral Basilica when she passed so she got to have her viewing in one of the little side chapels. That was pretty awesome. I remember my older cousin taking a polaroid of her just before they closed the casket. I was shocked and only found out years later that it wasn’t that uncommon to photograph the deceased.

    Also, it seems that it should go without saying that at virtually any Catholic wedding or funeral you’re likely to get at least a few non-Catholics. That should be a painless pretense for giving some basic instructions about decorum, receiving communion, etc. “For our non-Catholic friends, we’d like to remind you that…”

  9. John F. says:

    As a funeral director I have seen drastic changes to how funerals are handled over the last three decades. Some of these changes have been sensible and others just downright looney. From what I have seen most of the silliness creeps in when families have too much time before the Requiem. It appears that they try to fill that time with what they think will be meaningful and helpful additions. Every one gets together the night before and for lack of something better to do for 4 to 6 hours they all discuss how things can be improved in the morning(this gets even more ridiculous if drinking all evening is involved.) add this to the culture of “everyone is important ” and “we don’t want to upset Johnny or Mary” and it doesn’t take long until the committee of experts assembled have planned a train wreck for the next day.
    Becauseover the last 50 years few people plant roots and live in the same neighborhood they grew up in, work at the same company long enough to get a gold watch and retire coupled with increasing life spans the isn’t much of a circle of friends, neighbors or former coworkers left to gather at an all evening visitation. It is often 20 years or more after retirement and add to that possibly a move or two to follow children or move someplace warm and former social networks from work, the neighborhood or church sodalities are unraveled. when faced with those factors a more “compact”funeral schedule such as a short viewing at church before Mass can be a very reasonable option that allows the family to recieve what few friends that are left and pray for the deceased. It is drpressing watching a family sit all evening alone and only have a handful of people, if any stop by the funeral home.
    People need to step back and make a realistic observation regarding what they are buying, spending and including in their funeral arrangements. As a businessman I would love to have every customer select the most expensive merchandise and services I have to offer but I also realize that it is my moral and ethical obligation to help them select what best suits their needs not what I would line them to select.

  10. Latin Mass Type says:

    For a while we were having occasional weekday “private” EF Masses at my Novus Ordo parish with maybe half a dozen people attending. One afternoon we arrived to find that a funeral home from several hours away had brought a departed former parishioner back for a service at the church and installed the casket in front of the table altar.

    Our Mass proceeded as usual as usual at the back altar. I didn’t know the person but I felt it was a blessing to be praying additional prayers for him. I don’t know if the family even knew.

    No, it wasn’t a requiem Mass.

  11. oldconvert says:

    The last two Catholic funerals I have attended, in a small parish church, the family had arranged for leaflets to be printed and handed out with the order of service, hymns etc as many of the attendees were non-Catholic or had lapsed for many years. Seems a sensible procedure, as the last thing you need is people bewildered about standing, sitting, kneeling etc.

  12. Volanges says:

    Forget a viewing before Mass, in our community the local churches used to be used for the entire wake. It dated back to the days before there was a funeral home: the churches were used because the family homes were small or they simply felt it was more reverent. As I recall the last full wake we had in the church was about 9 years ago. Let’s put it this way, it was more reverent than most wedding rehearsals and weddings.

    Here they usually bring the body to the church about 2 hours before the funeral. There is no procession from the funeral home to the church. The coffin is left at the back of the church until the start of the funeral Mass. There is no viewing involved. Father does the reception of the body just before Mass starts and the family places the pall on the coffin at that time.

    In my early years here the priest used to do the reception when the coffin was dropped off, with nobody present but the undertakers. There was rarely, if ever, a Funeral Vigil nor did he go to the funeral home for the prayers at the “Transfer of the Body to the Place of Committal.” Truth be told, even though I’d experienced the death, wakes, and funerals of many relatives, including my parents, I’d never experienced or even heard of a Funeral Vigil until I got involved in Liturgy in this parish.

    Then for three years we had a priest who did all those rites. If he couldn’t be present (he was sometimes at one of the Missions and a replacement priest would only come in time for the Mass of Christian Burial) he had trained a few lay people to lead those prayers. We’d go to the hospital and pray with the dying, go back for the prayers at the time of death, go to the funeral home for the gathering in the presence of the body and the later Funeral Vigil and the prayers at the time of Transfer… The coffin was transferred to the church just before the funeral. Some families greatly appreciated all the rites; some viewed it as overkill — particularly when the death was of a parent whose children didn’t go to church on a regular basis.

  13. Liz says:

    We just happen to have buried my sweet Dad on Thursday. We were able to have a low requiem mass in the Extraordinary Form on Corpus Christi. Father pointed this out and said how nice it was since my Dad went to daily mass for most of his life. Anyway, I don’t know a whole lot about funerals, but after having altar girls (bleh) at my mom’s funeral and a few other things we learned what we did not want. I lit a seven-day candle to Our Lady for her to help with the details of the funeral and she surely did work things out. Besides the requiem mass and services (I don’t know what to call them, but the beautiful prayers at the burial) at the cemetery we insisted on having the rosary at the church instead of the mortuary. It just seems like a better place to say a rosary. Anyhow, for both of my parents the body was left over night in the church, but they were quietly placed in the back of the church in the baptistery and most people didn’t know that they were there. Also, after my mom’s rosary, people streamed by us sitting in the front pew in the church to offer their condolences. We didn’t know that this would happen, but we tried to learn from it and asked that people meet us in the parish hall afterwards this time. Father announced this and some people came down. It didn’t work out perfectly because some people still stopped me before the rosary both at the back of church and as they came in and saw us in the front pew. Even a priest from a different parish greeted us there. I tried very hard not to be rude trying to remember that people just aren’t properly catechized, and I answered them in a whisper. I guess you just have to do the best you can. I have learned a lot from this and realized that I need to plan my own funeral ahead. The other details are important, but mostly I want the beautiful prayers for my poor soul.

  14. A couple of comments:

    1. A visitation at the church isn’t a bad idea at all; it’s just that because our churches tend not to be designed for this, the visitation ends up in, or too close to, the nave of the church. And then, the problem isn’t that people are behaving so badly; it’s that the setting isn’t suitable. It’s not really reasonable to expect a visitation not to include talking and story-telling, and it will be noisy. No one objects to it in another setting; the nave of the church is the wrong setting.

    2. Which recalls the little pocket in my mind where I keep my mental notes on how I’d design a church, if ever the opportunity presents itself: in particular, I would design a very commodious foyer (I refuse to call it a “gathering space,” although if I knew the Latin for that, I might yield to that term), which could serve for this sort of event, among others.

  15. slainewe says:

    John F.,
    Thank you. This is very helpful advice.

    Re: Liz’ experience above [My condolences to Liz. Your Dad’s funeral sounded beautiful.]
    I agree with Father Fox that we can’t stop people from performing the work of mercy of consoling the family of the deceased. A special church area seems practical, but perhaps this would be a case of the church usurping a role of the family? Just because many funeral homes have become businesses does not mean that the service they provide is not a legitimate ministry of the laity.

  16. Sconnius says:

    My wife and I attended a funeral at our local parish for a woman who was very fond of our two little boys. This was a great woman, with a very strong devotion to her Faith.

    Her descendants, however… When you can’t hear the musician (who I was facing and closer to) over the people talking all throughout the church. It made me want to do this:

  17. dominic1955 says:

    “Funeral homes often encourage family members to forgo churches altogether, and to have the funeral right there in the mortuary, with a priest or deacon coming in to lead a service without the Holy Mass.”

    That may be the case, but in my experience in the funeral business, this is usually the case with poorly catechized Catholics or family who are not Catholic or fallen away Catholic but knew that their dearly departed was so they want to do something Catholic yet “simple”. The funeral taking place in the church means more money for us, as well as less actual work since the church takes care of the music and such. It eats up a nice chunk of the day as well. I’m all for church services (Protestant too) rather than services at the funeral home.

    The problem is one of decorum, and so many people have no sense of it. One thing I’ve noticed is that people seem to not be able to not go right into yammering about inconsequential nothings as soon as something is over-and clogging up the exits in the process. I see this all the time at the funeral home, the service is over and what do people do? Barely go outside the chapel doors and start talking about nothing, usually loudly.

    I would do about anything to end this frustrating societal habit.

  18. Stephen Matthew says:

    If something is too indecorous to be done in a Church I would think it would be similarly unfitting to do in a funeral home chapel in the presence of the mortal remains of the recently deceased, but that is just me.

    I really don’t much care for the practice around here of funeral masses being at noon, and the body and the family arriving at the very last moment before the mass (often late). Among the other problems this presents, the family gets charged for an entire extra day of use of the funeral parlor, and is almost always pressured into doing the morning visitation “open casket” and there is an extra fee for that, too. Then the body is buried just after the funeral, but the grave yard is across town (not sure how that happened, I am guessing a farmer donated his field to the parish a hundred some years ago), so only the nearer family will go, and by the time they are done all of the more extended acquaintances will have gone back to work rather than staying for the bereavement meal being offered after in the parish hall. It is a rather clunky arrangement. Likewise, in all except for large, devout Catholic families, the prayers the night before at the funeral home are quite poorly attended.

    It would be, I think, better to either bring the body to the church the night before, or have the funeral in the evening and the burial the next day. On occasion we have a memorial mass for someone whose funeral was elsewhere, and those tend to be in the evenings and are much better attended than actual funerals its seems.

    For my funeral, I want there to be a time (apart from the liturgy) for as many of those who can make it as possible to be able to eat, drink, remember, tell stories, and offer eulogies together. I should be happy to think there should be a grand feast or banquet to mark the occasion with not an empty chair left (though I fully expect to die alone, be buried without ceremony or mourners, and to be left in a forgotten grave). Now, for families that are mostly non-Catholic, I think it might even be better to have the main advertised “funeral” not actually be the funeral mass, because non-Catholics have all these expectations about cousin Jill singing that song she always does at funerals, and cousin Bill always offers the greatest eulogy, and cousin Jim always tells the funniest jokes about the deceased… all of which is fine as far as family tradition goes but has no place in a Catholic liturgy, but ins’t really the thing to do at visitation either, exactly.

    There is a recently constructed Church in this diocese that has a very large narthex/foyer area, and off to one side it has a “family parlor” area that can be made available for funeral visitations, or just for use of family for funerals and weddings, that sort of thing. The room had French double doors opening into a mostly empty center space, with a grand fireplace/mantle opposite the doors, to the left is a dining table and kitchenette, to the right is a sitting area with chairs and couches and large windows. Truthfully, the body could easily be placed in the nave to be visited by those wishing to pray, while those wanting to console the family could use the parlor, which would seem fitting to me. Really, any church with an attached social hall could host visitations without much difficulty, though.

  19. Vincent says:

    When we buried my grandfather two years ago, we had the wake in the house. Of course, very few people came to that, just the members of the family who were around at the time. Lapsed members just sat in the lounge and had a cup of tea whilst we went and said the rosary. The coffin was closed and we ‘processed’ to the church in time for vespers where grandad was received by the priest. A few more prayers and then left him with Our Lord for the night.

    The following day the Requiem was at 11. We arrived in good time and all the senior members of the family were in the narthex greeting people as they arrived. That means you avoid the horror of being knelt at your bench when someone comes to tell you a funny story about the deceased.

    A final (wonderful) touch was taking the processional cross down to the cemetery and going as a full procession to the graveside. Father decided that he would say some appropriate psalms as we were walking down – must have looked like something out of a tv show about the 19th century!

    What’s interesting is that there really is no one who is a wealth of knowledge on these things – there are a lot of people who know the ‘right’ way of doing things. What we came across was that everyone had an opinion on how a Tridentine Requiem with associated trimmings should go. When done well, these things feel like a real send off – and a certain amount of closure on the immediate grief of losing someone you love. Too often these things are peremptory, as if doing it properly will make people uncomfortable. Actually, all these kind of sacraments are like that: Baptism, marriage and death are all parts of human life, and Catholics deserve to have each done properly, rather than letting it be ruled by how people feel. It’s a witness as much as an evangelical knocking on doors, etc.

    On a side note, one of my cousins, who isn’t catholic, loved the ceremony! People who aren’t catholic also like things to be done properly – that’s why a lot want to be married in church…

  20. YoungLatinMassGuy says:

    I hope to die in a manner that doesn’t leave any icky corpse behind for everyone else to deal with.

  21. Charivari Rob says:

    Veering off-topic from the viewing and wakes question, Stephen Matthew, but you reminded me that I’ve run into a “practice” (bordering upon “scam” or “racket”) a couple of times in the NYC area (and possibly others – can’t remember) where we had to rush Saturday morning funerals because we had to get to cemetery by some strict deadline. The idea being we simply must be inside the gates by whatever early afternoon time (the cemetery is actually open ’til 4 or 5) because the gravediggers’ shift ends at 2:30 on Saturday and we simply MUST be done before then so they can close the grave or else… I forget the exact “or else”. I’m sure it was hideous overtime rates.

    It was outrageous. Lots of people have Saturday funerals if they can manage it – a little easier for the comings and goings of far-flung family. The cemetery is open all afternoon. It’s a major cemetery in a major metropolitan area. People don’t always have control over the time of the Mass or church service – especially if their church has another the same morning, they might not get to have theirs until 11 AM. A decorous Mass or service can easily take an hour. Getting people out of church and sorted and distances & driving times there – they could easily be traveling 60-90 minutes just to reach the cemetery. Then snake their way through the web of lanes in the cemetery to not gridlock with somebody else’s graveside service to have yours. All with a clock ticking to complete graveside prayers on an arbitrary cutoff. They have people over a barrel.

  22. kimberley jean says:

    I accidentally walked into a viewing a few years ago. They had the deceased in the vestibule with a video presentation, flowers and and music. It wasn’t to my taste but it wasn’t my dime or my relative. After a time, they wheeled her into the church for the funeral. If you have a traditional church or a small one, that wouldn’t work. You have to put the body somewhere and really people are no more disrespectful at this time than they are normally, which is a another story.

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