In the nearly two decades since the promulgation of the Order of
Christian Funerals (OCF), a diversity of pastoral practice typifies
funeral liturgy today more than any other of the renewed rites.
Among the revised funeral rites, the vigil appears to be the service
In some places, the vigil either was never introduced or has
disappeared. By considering the vigil repetitive of the funeral,
some communities have not understood its value. Similarly, many
of our faithful are so accustomed to reciting the Rosary for the
deceased before the funeral that they could not conceptualize
another service. Consequently, the rites of the vigil are not part of
the experience of a significant number of Catholics.
In other places, the vigil is so alive that "it is rare not to
have one," in the words of one Midwest pastor. Since many people
are more comfortable in church than at a mortuary, almost all
vigil services in that parish are celebrated in the church. Mourners
at that parish comment that the vigil's allowance for less formal
liturgy and sharing of memories in a relaxed environment is
"helpful, prayerful, and uplifting."
Still, 40 years after the first revised Ordo exsequiarum (1969)
set out to restore the word of God as central to the vigil, the reading
of scripture and singing of psalms and other scriptural hymns
are met often with reluctance. Many think that such services are
reserved for the clergy and religious.
Yet, when Catholics experience the vigil liturgy as a celebration
of word, song, and gesture, with condolences and stories,
they inevitably express the hope of a similar liturgy for themselves
and their loved ones.
First of all, the vigil is not merely a service. The OCF understands
"vigil" as both a period of time and the name given the rites to be
celebrated during that time frame. Unnecessarily ambiguous?
Perhaps, but the Encarta College Dictionary defines "vigil" as "a
period spent in doing something through the night, for example,
watching, guarding, or praying."
For the funeral vigil, the period of time is "between the
time of death and the funeral liturgy" (1989, 51; 1990, 82) and
not limited to "through the night." Yet, often we still refer to this
time frame and its activities also as a "wake" - simply an Anglo
Saxon rendering of the same Latin word, vigilia.
Much happens during the vigil. The vigil rites are at the
center as the hub of a wheel, and other rites and prayers, including
the Rosary, surround them like spokes. Taken together, all
these are the liturgical "markers" that provide the time between
death and the funeral with Christian meaning. From the start, the
Catholic funeral vigil should not be equated with "visitation" or
"viewing" or "courtesy call," which are other activities of "doing
something" during the time called vigil. This consideration frees
us from some of the constraints of time and space that limit the
celebration of the vigil liturgy. Everything does not have to happen
within the liturgical vigil service.
For the hub of our liturgical "doing something," the OCF
presents two forms of vigil rites. These two sets of rites already
illustrate the pastoral richness and potential of the funeral vigil.
"Vigil for the Deceased" provides the basic model to be adapted
according to pastoral needs and circumstances. As the OCF
expresses, "Adaptations of the vigil will often be suggested by the
place in which the celebration occurs" (1989, 55; 1990, 83).
Among such places, the document lists the home of the deceased
(where the rites would be "simplified and shortened"), funeral
home, parlor or chapel of rest, or in some other suitable place
(nursing homes, assisted living residences, and the like come to
mind). Because the parish church enjoys pride of place throughout
the OCF, the second model is "Vigil for the Deceased with
Reception at the Church." Finally, when no funeral liturgy (that
is, funeral Mass or funeral outside Mass) takes place before the
rite of committal, the OCF assigns an appropriate form of the
vigil as the Church's liturgy.
In essence, the two forms of vigil rites follow the pattern of
a Liturgy of the Word of God or the Liturgy of the Hours. A
Liturgy of the Word is, of course, more familiar to the Catholics
at the vigil and easily accessible to others by means of standard
service sheets. This familiarity is part of what enables such a gathering
of mourners and consolers to recognize the healing presence
and power of God in their midst. When everything else
around them is upset and uncertain, Catholics can find comfort
in knowing what is going on and knowing what to say and do.
The familiar Introductory Rites of Greeting, Entrance Song,
Invitation to Prayer, and Opening Prayer precede the celebration
of the Word in reading, Responsorial Psalm, Gospel, and Homily.
A Prayer of the Faithful follows with an Invitation to Prayer, an
intercessory litany for the assembly, the family and the deceased,
completed by the Lord's Prayer, a final collect and concluding
rites of blessing and song. Familiar, yet none of this has to be
experienced as the "same old, same old." Similarly, they are not
ends in themselves, nor are they to be a burden. Recall that these
are model rites to be adapted; flexibility and adaptation are essential
pastoral virtues for the OCF. They serve to maintain the
integrity of scripture and the liturgy as what God is doing in our
midst, but as adapted, they acknowledge the human reality within
which God is acting. People recognize God and themselves, their
loved one, and their shared journeys in the choices of readings,
psalms, hymns, and songs.
The Office for the Dead in the Liturgy of the Hours is
another means of giving God's Word a central place in the time of
vigil. It introduces people to psalms, particularly the lament
psalms. Using those psalms helps with an appreciation of
Christian lament. Such a stance is not merely "being angry with
God," but an opportunity to come face to face with the feeling of
the unreasonableness of death. Lament psalms, the prayers of our
Jewish forbearers in the faith ("Out of the depths I cry to
you . . . ." Psalm 130) and the prayers of Jesus ("My God, my
God, why have you forsaken me. . . ." Psalm 22), have a way of
doing that. We can use that tradition
to express and enrich our
experience. Occasional homilies drawing on the lament psalms at
Sunday Mass can introduce their role and value in vigil liturgies.
The OCF on the Liturgy of the Hours for the Dead (1989,
348-396; 1990, 556 - 603) is new to parochial practice. It reflects
the desire to encourage the assembly to pray the Divine Office as
a vigil for the deceased and a liturgy of remembrance after the
funeral. Together with the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours is public
prayer that engages the whole Church living and deceased in
communion, offering unending prayer and praise.
The Canadian edition of the OCF offers a further example
of adapting the variety of material provided for vigils into 11
alternative vigil liturgies. Nine of these present a Liturgy of the
Word and two are Evening Prayer as a supplement to the Liturgy
of the Hours for the Dead. Throughout these services, the scripture
readings have been arranged according to themes that extend
the primary motif of the Paschal Mystery: "awaiting the Lord's
coming," "God is faithful," "life is changed, not ended," "I am the
Resurrection and the life," "our eternal home," "I am the Light of
the World," "our hope of glory," "God welcomes faithful servants,"
"God is with us," "in praise of God's love," and "longing for God."
Because vigil services in both editions of the OCF are models,
using these rites from different national publications interchangeably
is an acceptable form of adaptation that the liturgical document
Some form of "vigil" while preparing the body for its last honors
and the procession (funus, the source of the word "funeral") to
the place of its final earthly disposition were the funeral rites early
Christians knew and observed. In many places, a common meal
at the grave and on anniversaries completed the funeral. From
very early times, as Eucharist replaced that meal, it became a
Christian dimension to the cultural pattern of funeral. In their
Mediterranean world, the vigil and the committal of the deceased
became the bookends, so to speak, for celebrating Eucharist at
funerals. In time, there emerged the threefold pattern that came
to typify the Christian funeral in the West: a vigil of scripture and
prayer while the body was prepared, procession to the church
where the funeral Mass would be celebrated, and the burial rites.
Diversity would have been experienced from region to region and
between what we today think of as parish life and the medieval
As with much of later liturgy, monastic practices influenced
the model for the ideal Catholic funeral, thus establishing the
threefold ritual pattern of vigil or wake with the body, procession
to the church for the funeral Mass, and transfer to the place of
burial with committal rites. Although this pattern was intended
to be normative, particularly following the promulgation after
the Council of Trent of the Roman Ritual of 1614, significant cultural
diversity continued to express itself in the Catholic funeral.
Reforms in the twentieth century took this diversity into account.
For Roman Catholics in the West, the ritual reforms following the
Second Vatican Council maintained the threefold plan as normative
liturgical expression of the Church's faith and values at death,
while allowing cultural norms to affect its application. Whatever
the culture, prayerful respect for the deceased's body and the
Eucharist as celebration of the Paschal Mystery are to characterize
the Catholic funeral. This impacts the vigil in two ways.
First, the threefold plan of wake, funeral Mass, and committal
was the ordinary practice and thus in accord with the new
norm. The reintroduction of scripture into the wake service was
one of the goals of the reform. Although essentially indifferent to
the Rosary in theory, in practice the reform seemed to pit the new
scriptural wake services against the Rosary, as virtually the only
other wake service that was familiar. Yet, for the most part, pastoral
liturgists consistently argued for a "both scripture and Rosary"
rather than a "scripture vs. Rosary" stance. From this was born
the familiar scriptural Rosary at vigil liturgies.
This brief historical review highlights a second impact on
the vigil. It helps us appreciate why the typical funeral observes
simply a two-stage pattern: time spent with the mourners and
committal, following the predominant Protestant culture. From
the sixteenth century on, as the new Reformed Christians found
the celebration of the Mass at funerals more and more problematic
on theological grounds and removed it from their orders of
service at death, a twofold plan came to typify the Protestant
funeral: wake and committal. Some more radical Reformers held
burial itself to be a purely secular matter; others eschewed all religious
rites at death, leaving both wake and committal to the customs
of the secular culture. Furthermore, sometimes these two
are collapsed into one and held at the place of committal or cremation.
Thus, removal of the Eucharist, the uniquely Catholic
highpoint, from the funeral leaves the wake and committal as the
ordinary ritual moments at death.
Recognizing that both these ritual moments are open to
highly personalized forms of expression, we can also appreciate
that the so-called designer funerals are commonplace in North
America - mostly outside Catholic circles. Yet, English-speaking
North American Catholics are both American or Canadian andCatholic. It is not surprising that in some parts of our nation,
mostly in the West but also in pockets across the lands, Catholics
are requesting both a more telescoped, simplified pattern and
more personalized rites. As I observe this trend in Catholic communities,
it is not the funeral Mass that falls victim to simplification,
as in earlier Protestant history, but the vigil. For reasons of
time, money, age, illness, demographics, cultural and religious
differences in extended families, and the like, a time of wake or
vigil with the body and mourners is becoming telescoped more
and more into the time set for the funeral Mass or into the Mass
itself. Clearly, this trend undermines the traditional values of the
vigil and has an impact on the funeral Mass.
Suffice the citing of two of the most obvious examples. One
involves squeezing a vigil service, even if simply the recitation of
the Rosary, paying final respects to the deceased and consoling
the mourners, into the time scheduled for the funeral Mass. On
the other hand, such telescoping can shift the emphasis of the
funeral Mass from a celebration in thanks and praise for what
God has done through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus' death and
Resurrection and continues to do in the life and death of this
Christian and the Church into a framework for personal expressions
of mourning in song, poetry, favorite memorabilia, eulogies,
and the like. While all the latter and more have a place in the
cultural North American funeral and can receive full accommodation
in a time of Catholic wake or vigil, the funeral liturgy of
the OCF, with rites of reception, funeral Mass, and final commendation,
is already a pastoral liturgical challenge to celebrate effectively
and prayerfully. It cannot carry, so to speak, all that the
traditional vigil is to achieve. The funeral Mass alone, without
wake or vigil (and increasingly often without committal of body
or cremated remains), cannot do all that through the centuries
has come to constitute the Catholic funeral: prayerful respect for
the body of the deceased and the Eucharist as celebration of the
Paschal Mystery giving unique meaning to the life and death of
the deceased and the consolation of the faith to mourners. Hence,
the OCF insists that when the vigil liturgy is celebrated in the
church, it is to be scheduled "at a time well before the funeral liturgy,
so that the funeral liturgy will not be lengthy and the liturgy
of the word repetitious" (OCF, #56).
The funeral vigil is important, first of all, for the grieving. The
celebration of the liturgy at the vigil may transform the time into
an experience of "the consolation of the faith." This dynamic
interaction of time and liturgy has the potential to be part of initiating
the long process of healing the throes of grief. During the
vigil, initial grieving happens within a world of meaning that
acknowledges God as the one who heals and whose healing comes
through the power of the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the
Christ, to transform even death.
The earliest efforts to reform funeral rites according to
the mandate of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy took shape
at the same time the death awareness movement asserted itself. In
that context, pastoral counselors, pastors, and liturgical theologians
emphasized the psychological and sociological values of
time spent in funerary rituals, especially those directly involving
the mortal remains of the deceased, such as the vigil. The early
reforms already took into account, albeit sparingly, the recognition
that the funeral is for the mourners as well as for the
deceased. Although often criticized for not being sensitive
enough, or for contributing to a denial of the mourners' grief by
placing too much emphasis on the promise of resurrection and
joyful hope, the OCF has made an effort to take the mourner and
the reality of the loss seriously without losing its primary focus as
an order of Christian worship. Such rites provide an opportunity
for the mourners to begin to own the reality of the death and to
With sensitivity to the trauma of the mourners, the vigil
can be the beginning of a new relationship with the loved one.
During the vigil and the vigil liturgy, the focus is on the death and
consolation. In a safe and supportive environment, ordinarily this
helps the bereaved to begin to own the reality of the death, first
intellectually and gradually emotionally. The vigil is precisely
where personal preferences and popular funeral songs and music
can find a place. Furthermore, expressions of grief are not only
"allowed" by the public rites, but are "expected" in ways appropriate
to the persons involved.
The gathered community of the Church is an essential element
of the vigil in the OCF. Of course, the temptation is great to
devote all pastoral attention to the mourners closest to the
deceased. Yet, that is only part of the picture. The vigil, as indeed
the whole of the OCF, is "of the Church, by the Church, and for
the Church," as I have explained in "The Funeral for the Church,
by the Church, of the Church: A Further Step in the Tradition"
(the National Bulletin on Liturgy 36, 202 - 208, 2003). Even the
vigil's therapeutic value, so to speak, as an opportunity to begin
grief 's journey in the supportive context of the faith community,
is not limited to those close to the deceased.
The OCF articulates that all who belong to the People of
God have a responsibility to the dead, determined by their role
within the Christian community (#9 -13). The ecclesial community
shares a concern for the funeral liturgy, with each member
contributing to the celebration and offering consolation to the
bereaved. This expectation is a challenge. Yet, think of what it
means to all who because of this funeral, can say, "This will also
happen for me!" and "When my turn comes to be in that casket,
the Church will be there for my husband, or my wife, or my child!"
This is what we do when death comes; it won't be an unexpected
event in a vacuum. It will be "of the Church." The vigil - even
more so than the funeral Mass - because of its flexibility and
attentiveness to aspects of mourning in the context of our faith, is
the stage in the funeral journey best able to embody the full range
of ecclesial expression.
Most importantly, the vigil makes room for God when
death strikes. Just as grieving people do not need vigil rites to
grieve, neither does God need our rites to heal grieving hearts or
transform death. Since people grieve the loss of their loved ones,
and because we believe God offers to all the healing power of
Jesus' Paschal Mystery, the Catholic vigil is a source of consolation
and profession of faith at a time of shock and confusion. Our
ancestors in faith transformed the preparation and watching over
the bodies of their dead by surrounding that time and activity
with scripture and prayer, setting a pattern for Christians to enter
the journey of the living with the loss of their loved ones while
trusting that, in Christ, death does not have the last word. In all
the concerns surrounding a death and in the first agony of grief,
the OCF makes room for God and surrounds the mourners with
the embrace of their faith. Making room for God has to be the
primary purpose of the vigil liturgy.
As a professor of pastoral liturgy in a master's program, I have
guided students in an inquiry of pastoral workers about the
funeral vigil. The results of that query and subsequent discussions
informed much of this article. Standing out among the
responses of the survey are ongoing catechesis about the value of
the Church's prayer from death through committal and beyond
and dialogue with funeral home personnel.
Where the funeral vigil is alive and well, regular reference
in homilies, bulletin inserts, and adult education sessions, and
especially good vigil celebrations have contributed to a successful
implementation of the OCF vigil. Where the funeral vigil is rarely
or never celebrated, the circumstances and causes are complex.
Yet, talking up the vigil seems a first step to opening up its treasure.
On one occasion, an invitation to mourners at the time of
planning the funeral transformed the ordinary into an extraordinary
vigil of support and prayer in the family home.
Secondly, whatever the status of the funeral vigil, dialogue
with funeral directors and other providers of funeral services is
imperative. Economics and time are considerations that need to
be discussed. When vigils take place in church, for mortuaries,
overhead to maintain a funeral chapel and concern about the
body being kept overnight are issues. For pastoral workers, vigils
in church can require more work and, when the body remains in
the church, involve scheduling during or around morning Masses.
Bereavement ministry groups can ease the workload of parish
ministers, and a common understanding among all parties can
allow the mortal remains to be locked in the church overnight, or
arrange for mourners from family, organizations such as the
Knights of Columbus or Rosary Society, to keep vigil by the
deceased through the night.
Listening to pastoral voices across the United States and
Canada affirms that in many places the vigil is alive and well.
Reviewing pastoral practice in the time between notification of a
death and the funeral Mass can help us maximize the strengths
and opportunities of the funeral vigil as well as minimize its
weaknesses and threats. Each parish or religious community will
fill out the possibilities of such a vigil liturgy in its own way, but I
encourage pastoral ministers to share vigil stories at annual clergy
conventions and pastoral conferences. It is important that
together we allow the vigil liturgy of the Church to open the treasure
of God's healing and consoling word for the faithful who are
the Church. Let the conversation continue!
is a professor of liturgical studies at the
University of Portland and the author, with Tony Barr, of The Death of
a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals (Liturgical Press, 1990).