Ought we to consider readopting the catafalque?

At the moment many of us are at the survival setting and we just want to get through another day.  However, whatever the resolution of the Covid-19 crisis, the time will come when we have to pick up the pieces and continue. However attractive it might seem, we can’t simply think that we can go back to the way things were in 2019. There may have been a “before” to this crisis, but there will not really be an “after.” Our society and our churches will have changed.  Indeed, in many places, unless there is an economic bail out by the government or some other entity independent from the diocese, many parishes may find it economically impossible to reopen.

While the Eucharistic famine has been a challenge for many Christians, perhaps the saddest thing we have had to face liturgically is the lack of funerals. Whatever the mistakes and problems of the Catholic Church in recent years we have always been able to credit ourselves with doing death well.  In Ireland even those who have not practiced their faith for years, still want the traditions and prayers of a Catholic funeral.

But today a traditional funeral is a fairly rare occurrence. While many people are dying of Covid-19, even many of those who die from other causes are still unable to receive a funeral due to the social distancing measures. In some countries funerals can take place with a limited number of people (often without room for even all of the direct family), in other places the coffin is taken directly to the graveyard without a funeral Mass and a cleric will preside the graveside liturgy, in some places things are just too difficult and the bodies are simply buried.

I have a few friends who lost family members and they were unable to hold funeral liturgies.  This has gotten me thinking of how we can best cope with this in the months to come.  I remember Teresa Berger’s 2018 post A Place to Mourn – for Those Who have Lost “Their” Place. Here she spoke of the modern custom of providing a memorial to the dead for those who are unable to visit the graves of their loved ones or whose loved ones have no graves.  In the future we will have to build memorials to those who have died in this time.

We will also have many memorial services once our parishes reopen. I imagine that in Ireland they will take the form of a funeral without a coffin. But I am wondering if these liturgies will need a focus.  Obviously we will not have the remains of the deceased Christian as a normal funeral would.  Perhaps we should consider if there is a need for some sort of a focus of the liturgy, a sort of symbolic presence of the departed individual. In some places it has been the custom for some time already to bring a photograph of the deceased and place it in the sanctuary (on a table, the coffin or even on the altar).  This could be one way forward.

I wonder if we should also consider giving the possibility of using a catafalque. Nowadays this is a word that has fallen out of use even for liturgical ministers (*). Yet it was used for hundreds of years in Catholic liturgy. The classic reference work included in my Logos software, John F. Sullivan’s 1917 The Externals of the Catholic Church: Her Government, Ceremonies, Festivals, Sacramentals, and Devotions tells me that the catafalque is a sort of symbolic coffin that is used for funeral Masses and Masses for the dead, when the “real” coffin is not available. It traces the custom to the era of the crusades when many European knights died abroad and the family desired to have a funeral without the presence of the body. Sullivan explains the practice current in 1917 when he was writing his book:

When for any reason … the body cannot be present at a funeral service, or at the celebration of anniversary or other solemn Masses, the same practice is adhered to. A representation of a coffin, suitably enshrouded in a sable pall, is placed before the altar, to typify the body of the deceased; and over it the Church performs the various ceremonies which would ordinarily take place over the remains of the departed one.

John F. Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church: Her Government, Ceremonies, Festivals, Sacramentals, and Devotions (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1917), 284.

Today, I don’t think we can have a one size fits all mentality and say that this is the best way to celebrate memorial Masses for everybody.  But it might be a good focus for some. If the future memorial services are to resemble a funeral as much as possible it might be better to have something that we can incense and around which we can perform the final commendation.  Liturgy is something that constantly changes to meet the specific needs of the times.  We should not be surprised that Rome publishes a new version of the Mass in Time of Pandemic. This had been in earlier missals, but in the post-Vatican II reform, it was thought not to be necessary. Now, very unfortunately, we have discovered that it is a helpful option.

Obviously, we should concentrate on celebrating the Triduum in these days and everyone should cooperate to help our fellow parishioners in these hard times.  However, those of us involved in pastoral ministry should also begin to think about what we will need to do liturgically to help people in the future. We need to be creative, and while this creativity entails looking for new solutions, it also means that we have to reinvent the wheel and that we can’t automatically reject every practice that fell out of use after Vatican II. In the words of St. Paul, we need to test everything and hold fast to what is good (see 1 Thes 5:21).



(*) The Catholic usage whereby the catafalque is a type of substitute coffin is not to be confused with the secular meaning of the word, whereby the catafalque is a stand upon which the coffin is placed when someone is lying in state, or a similar stand in a church, funeral parlor or crematorium.


  1. Now that we are through the challenge of livestreaming Triduum, I am drawn to this post. I have been working with how to make Roman Catholic liturgy more effective griefwork since the middle 80’s, and in that time have watched how the denial of death prevalent in modern Northern European culture on both sides of the Atlantic and in the South Pacific has progressively infiltrated the attitudes that people bring to a funeral. For example, cremation is a legitimate option, but using it to postpone a funeral in order to organize a “celebration of life” with tributes and promises “never to forget” is verging on a denial of our faith in the “resurrection of body and life everlasting.”
    For me the crucial comment in this post was the remark that funerals need a focus. I am not certain that we need to go back to using a pseudo-coffin–though I am open to the suggestion; but I have seen in the central aisle at the foot of the Paschal Candle a table draped in a white cloth with a beautiful urn and flowers and even sometimes a photograph which were incensed during the final commendation.
    All that I can say is that the ritual worked. These were the person’s earthly remains and deserved veneration, and I had a focus that I could center in on and say goodbye before the family carried the urn out.
    I am interested in other people’s experiences.

    1. The last cremation funeral Mass I attended involved the funeral home loaning out a casket for the cremains to be placed in.

  2. We have an annual Mass each November for those who died in the previous 12 months. The bereaved are personally invited. After the bidding prayers the names are read out and a relative comes forward and lights a candle which is placed on the sanctuary steps, the church lights are dimmed and people are given space to pray and remember.
    Maybe that could be an idea for after this plague.
    A lighted candle carries a rich vein of Christian symbolism, a pretend coffin (pardon the bluntness) not so much.

    1. Our Parish did something similar, most found it hastily put together and at best “cute”, and there were no guidelines. Several families have chosen to ignore it since some of the people listed in the program had no relationship to the Parish or it’s members other than they lived in the community while active parishioners from the Hispanic community were left out.
      I personally found it to be poorly thought out and never returned.

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