ASK FATHER: For a wake, Sister did a “prayer service”.

From a reader…


At the visitation at a funeral home for an elderly male relative of mine, instead of a family rosary being said, the local parish sent a nondescript religious Sister, who said she’d conduct a prayer service.  She advised at the outset that the Sign of the Cross would not be made at the beginning of the funeral Mass today because that would be taken care of at her proceedings, and that her event and the Mass were all of a piece.  She then launched into an introductory prayer as one does at the beginning of Mass, without her or us making the sign of the cross.  At one point in this proceeding, she announced she would inscribe a cross on the forehead of the deceased, and then did so.

Is this something that the Church really promotes nowadays, or is it all a nostrum of the Sister’s Pastor, who was once described by our disgraced, former Bishop, unironically, as “an innovative liturgist”?


The “wake” service is authentic (although I always prefer the rosary) and the whole concept of it being one continuous liturgy – from the wake, through the funeral, through the burial – is there in the books. It’s an innovation to explain each step along the way what one is doing, but that is consistent with the liturgical books – it is an option, if a stupid one. “now I’m making the sign of the cross. Now I’m sitting down. Now I’m twirling like a whirling dervish.” And it is authorized in the books that the wake and the burial can be done by someone other than a priest (which, to me, is inconsistent with the principle that it’s one liturgy – if it’s one continuous liturgy, then it should have one consistent “presider,” but logical coherence isn’t a hallmark of the reformed liturgical rites).

Fr. Z adds:

From my old pastor, I learned that a wake is the Rosary, speaking for maybe a minute, talking to the family, and getting out of the way.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Geoffrey says:

    I wish Vespers for the Dead was more popular as a wake / vigil, as well as Lauds before the Funeral Mass.

  2. Rob83 says:

    At least it was not a sister attempting to act as chaplain. One of the local “c”atholic hospitals was doing that (and was also indifferent if they summoned a priest or a Protestant minister). That kind of loosely-goosey nonsense costs souls.

  3. Fuerza says:


    One local hospital (non-Catholic) has a chaplain who goes by “Father” but he is a generic Protestant of some type who adjusts his prayer style based on the religion of the family. I was down there with an unconscious crime victim who was about to die, and his family requested a priest for last rites. “Father” came and did a generic prayer for the dying and then left. Even though I was standing there in my police uniform, meaning I’m not really supposed to discuss religious issues, I felt obligated to inform the family that what their loved one had received was not last rites. Luckily, they had also already called their parish priest who arrived shortly and performed the anointing. I don’t believe any of this was the result of intentional deception on the part of the hospital or the chaplain, but rather on ignorance.

  4. Gaetano says:

    Those are wise words from your pastor.

    They sent a group of women to lead the service at my uncle’s wake. There was no Rosary, and the liturgical texts were rather weak.

    My enduring memory was the group of they praying with hands extended over the coffin line the witches in MacBeth. It was not edifying.

    When my grandmother died, I used an English translation of the traditional prayers for the dying & at the moment of death.

    The contents of those prayers are profound, and many of my relatives said the same.

  5. As with so many things in the current Missal and ritual, there isn’t much formation or guidance or history to ensure how the “funeral vigil” — which is what this liturgy is called — is done well. Either you figure it out yourself, or you end up doing it kind of sloppily, not even intentionally.

    Another curiosity. Almost everything that came out in the wake of the post-Vatican II rearranging has a remarkable sameness to it. You end up having a “liturgy of the word,” frequently with one or even two readings, a responsorial psalm inbetween, an alleluia and a Gospel. This is true for baptisms, penance services, communal anointing services, communion services, funeral vigils, marriage outside of Mass, and quite a lot of “blessings” in the s0-called Book of Blessings. The ritual for anointing and the rituals for caring for the sick and dying are notable for being rather different.

    I’m not saying it’s good or bad per se, but it’s all kind of “cookie cutter” and a discerning person might ask, where did this come from, i.e., other than out of the heads of the guys sitting in a cafe in Rome working on cocktail napkins.

    In principle, I have no objection to some sort of prayer vigil that involves reading Scripture — and, to pick up on Geoffrey’s point, above, praying Vespers is an option as well. The present form can be done with sobriety and dignity.

  6. Benedict Joseph says:

    Be grateful the good sister liturgist didn’t bring along lights and camera to record herself. They turn everything into performance art. It appears it will never end. I can only imagine what would have happened if this had occurred at a wake for someone in my family. It would not have ended well.

  7. Danteewoo says:

    Wakes in my hometown of Chicago many decades ago were for two evenings, in a room which resembled a very large living room. People visited, occasionally walked over to the deceased for a prayer, visited some more. A priest would appear and lead the rosary, and people knelt down where they were, often leaning against a piece of furniture. The priest would leave, the visiting would continue. People would smoke. Maybe three hours of this — and as I said, for two evenings. In my town now of Denver, you enter a chapel, say the rosary, and leave. Blah. I would rather be waked in Chicago. Less formal, keeping the clerical presence to a minimum — they get their turn at the funeral.

  8. jwcraig11 says:

    I have been a priest 28 years and have done hundreds of wakes but I have NEVER inscribed a cross on the forehead of the deceased. Where do they come up with these things?

  9. APX says:

    I thought a wake was more of an informal gathering of people at someone’s house where the deceased is and people take turns keeping vigil praying for the deceased, meanwhile elsewhere in the house people drink, eat, and socialize with the family of the deceased.

    What the writer describes is what I grew up knowing as “Prayers”.

  10. Not says:

    When my father’s days were coming to an end in the nursing home due to dementia, I had forms to fill out with an officer of the home. I said no to morphine, no to protestant chaplain. I said I would bring back in my traditional Priest. I received 3 phone calls in 3 days asking if I wanted him to have morphine. I brought in my Priest who gave Dad Extreme Unction and the Apostolic Blessing. The next day I went to his room and found the protestant minister in his room talking with him. I don’t mind tell you I lost it. In a very loud and forceful voice asked him what he was doing in his room and asked him to read out loud what it said in the paperwork he was holding. He read , No protestant minister! Roman Catholic Priest will handle last Rites!

  11. Fuerza,

    I am surprised – and saddened – to hear of your experience with a “chaplain” at a local (Non-Catholic) hospital. In my experience, hospital chaplains are professionals who, upon discovering a patient is Catholic and desirous of the Sacraments, would immediately dispatch a priest to properly respond to the request. All of the non-Catholic hospital chaplains I have worked with know this – and they are often armed with a direct line to local Catholic clergy who will respond to the request STAT!

    My thanks – and biretta tip – to Fr. Tim Ferguson for answering this query in the thorough, yet comical manner we have come to expect from him!

  12. Dave P. says:

    I wish to have Vespers for the Office of the Dead prayed at my wake, either before the Requiem Mass (if it is in the afternoon or evening), or at the funeral home in the evening.

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  14. dallenl says:

    Maybe the Jews have the right idea. Any way we could adapt Shiva to Catholic rites?

  15. Not says:

    Thank you Father Tottan,
    Levity is always welcome. A good chuckle is good for the heart. I hope when I leave this mortal coil, that my family and friends will tell stories about me and laugh at our good times. Then I hope they pray like heck for my immortal soul.

  16. As to the Rosary, it has indulgences attached, and it was my understanding that the Rosary at the wake was to pray for the deceased and apply the indulgences granted to the soul of the departed. Did I miss something along the way?

  17. Kathleen10 says:

    I’m kind of confused. Here in New England, the wake is a time for everyone to say goodbye to the deceased whom they will not see again in this world. There is a line of visitors, with the family standing nearby. Everyone goes up to the deceased, most kneel, although not as many as once did, at least appear to say a prayer, and goes through the line offering condolences to the family. A priest or minister says a few words, usually an Our Father is said, and the remaining time people visit with each other and just try to comfort the family by being there. I can’t recall the Rosary being prayed ever, at a wake, and I’ve been to numerous wakes where the deceased was Catholic and a priest was there. I don’t mean to put everything on priests, but our culture is failing because not enough priests bring Catholicity to the culture. In every single instance, I’m positive people would pray the rosary if it was introduced by a priest. Even if the priest handed out leaflets saying, here is the prayer, and led people through it, people would pray it and be respectful, and leave with the understanding that, in times like this, prayer is needed. They’d come to expect it, and they may not have another encounter with prayer or religion until the next funeral. Priests should bring that Catholicism to the culture. We’re dying for it.
    If a Protestant chaplain shows up to talk to my family member, I’m appreciative. These are sincere people who see a lot of suffering and try to alleviate it. I’ll try hard to get a priest, but the last time I did that, I was told no priest was available to talk to my family member, at a large city hospital. The chaplain did go, talked to my brother about God, and had a good talk. You love Jesus? I’m with you, thank you. The sacraments are everything, but if you can’t get them, I’ll go with the person who loves Jesus and encourages my loved one to pray.

  18. TonyO says:

    I understand the impetus for asserting that the different events, the “prayer service” and the funeral and the burial, are “all one liturgy” or some such thing. But it seems to me that perhaps this is one of the instances where we push back and say, “no, that’s blather. Sophisticated and well-meaning blather, but blather just the same.”

    It being “one liturgy” would imply certain things. For one, as Fr. Ferguson points out, it would imply a single presider. It would ALSO imply continuity of the people attending as well, i.e. it would be positively disrespectful to go to one and not the others (which nobody actually thinks). It would also require a continuity of mental framework and attention, so that in those who attend, they are naturally and organically led forward from one part to the next. But that’s NEVER what actually happens, and the reasons include as a major part that human beings do not do “a single action” spread out over days, at least not AS a single action. In order to even sort of re-start the prior day’s action where it left off, it would be necessary to re-imagine what you were doing that prior day, and to FORGET all the intervening things you did (many of which were necessary to getting to THIS NEW point), and that just is an artifice, not an organically unified action.

    (I would suggest that even the Triduum grouping of events is not truly a “single” liturgy, it is 3 liturgies spread over 3 days, for otherwise we consume the Eucharist 3 times in a single liturgy, which seems ridiculous if it is reallya single unit rather than a closely connected series of 3 liturgies (besides usually having more than presider). What justifies 3 Communions is that mentally and spiritually the three parts are divided from each other the way 3 days are divided from each other, by large separations of time and attention and intervening actions (and inaction) which all demand their own other-centered acts of knowing and willing that are NOT part of the liturgy, nor even in pursuit of the attending the liturgy.)

    I am reminded of some modernist “work” of art, consisting of hundreds of enormous fixed umbrellas in two giant fields, one field in California and one in Japan, where the artist insisted it was all “one” work of art, in two parts: No, it’s not. Since it cannot be perceived as “one” by any other faculty than the mind joining the two artificially (and, particularly, only by remembering at least one part), its “unity” is not really in the thing, it is in the mind as a “being of reason”, i.e. two things considered as if one thing, in certain respects.

    Sure, you can CONSIDER three events AS IF they were a “single event” in certain respects, but in order to BE one event they have to be one in all real respects, not just a few. And that’s just not what we have.

  19. TonyO says:

    Kathleen10, I am in the same boat with you. Having grown up in the Northeast, you have described all the wakes I ever went to. It is only on the West Coast that I encountered a “wake” being primarily a rosary said for the dead.

    There is, undoubtedly, some cultural variation going on here. And some fairly fast shifting of customs as commonly held religious roots are no longer commonly held anymore: a parent who was baptized Catholic but never went to a Catholic school and never graced the inside of a church but for weddings and funerals, and has now died, is unlikely to have children (the ones making the decisions about the wake and funeral) to have their sensibilities guided by Catholic thinking, and only slightly by bare remembrances of a few Catholic wakes and funerals they may have attended, uncomfortably. Whatever particulars these kids may have imbibed at those few events, they are unlikely to be unified nor driven a coherent sense of custom.

  20. Son of Saint Alphonsus says:

    A word to the wise:

    If you want specific prayers and/or rites for your wake and funeral spell it out in your will. Be clear and exact regarding what is to be done and not done. Also provide a document with the same information for whoever will be taking care of arrangements with copies for the funeral director, nursing home (if applicable), etc.

    For example, as a religious priest I have specified that at the wake the Rosary is to be prayed and that the preacher at the Mass is to speak about purgatory, praying for the Poor Souls, and being prepared for death. There is to be no eulogy by anyone. I don’t want a canonization ceremony (which is what most priests get these days) but prayers for the repose of my soul. Many souls are languishing in Purgatory because New Church is all about pie in the sky when you die. Rare is the soul who immediately enters Heaven, especially those of to whom much has been given.

    Pray for the Poor Souls and GO TO CONFESSION. (Can’t be said often enough Fr. Z.)

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