Is seeing the dead body of a loved one a good way to start mourning them? Within Catholicism, the traditional death ritual is to display the deceased body at the visitation service via an open casket. Growing up I didn’t give a second thought about seeing an open casket at a wake. It wasn’t until my best friend passed away in October 2017 that I became more fascinated with the traditional Catholic death rituals. My friend had a Catholic funeral, yet she was cremated and not buried. This got me thinking, why have I been programmed to assume that I would see my best friend’s body at her wake? Why is this normal in the Catholic tradition? These questions have been bothering me since October, and I’m hoping this blog post will give me some closure.
The funeral process within Catholicism is considered a rite of passage. It is the final passage that a Catholic person goes through. Within Catholicism, the death ritual highlights the transitional period from the physical world to the spiritual world and the body’s final resting place. This rite of passage goes through these three stages: separation, liminality and reincorporation.[i] The separation stage occurs when a person leaves behind their social identity.[ii] In this case, their identity of a living person. The liminality stage occurs when a person is between two identities.[iii] The body connects the living and dead society through its presence. The death ritual or funeral must occur for the body to transition from one identity to the other. Finally, reincorporation is when a person enters the new society.[iv] The body is then socially recognized as dead by the society and the remains are set in a final resting place. These three stages show that the open casket marks the transition of a person from the physical world to their physical final resting place and spiritual end in the afterlife.
I wanted to start by learning why the Catholic death rituals include an open casket at the vigil. A vigil, also called a wake, is the gathering of friends and family to pay their respects to the deceased where the open casket is present. At the visitation service, attendees often pray in front of the open casket. For many, hearing that people go to a funeral home to kneel a metre away from a dead person to pray may seem strange. Yet, this is found within the Code of Canon Law, as declared by the Pope of Rome. Under the section titled “Church Funerals” the canon commands that a Catholic person’s body be buried for the mourning of the living. This is seen through the act of the open casket at the vigil.
So, you may be asking, how does this give the living people the comfort of hope? In a way, the act of having an open casket is very comforting to practicing Catholics. The body is being honoured by being put on display. This shows the importance of a body as being a vessel for their spirit that is no longer within the body. I decided I would ask my Aunt, who is a practicing Catholic, why she sees value in having an open casket at a funeral. In her words, “Most often people prefer to see a body to say a final farewell, it makes me feel like I get to say a real goodbye”. You can see that the practice is not ‘crazy’, but something that is comforting for a mourning person.
Another Catholic belief is the idea of a deceased person as just ‘sleeping’ until the second coming of Christ or the rapture. For Catholics, this idea can be found in within biblical verses. The belief is that Christ’s soul and body met again and so will his followers. This may be a foreign idea for some, but for many Catholics, it brings a sense of comfort that their loved ones’ bodies are ‘sleeping’ as they wait for the second coming of their saviour.
For an open casket to be displayed, there must be preservation of the body through the act of embalming. Embalming is the practice of preserving the body to slow down the process of decomposition. In other words, embalming is pumping a deceased body with multiple chemicals so your loved one can look like themselves a little bit longer. Embalming did not originate in Catholicism. It was used to allow families of those who died in the Civil War to see their family members one last time. There are even schools for people to learn how to care for a dead body as seen in this National Geographic video.
Despite what the Code of Canon says, Catholics might turn away from having an open casket because of the cost associated with embalming. Not only do you have to pay for the embalming, but also the dressing of the corpse and any cosmetics that are added. As well, the eyes and mouth need to have a glue-like substance applied to ensure they stay closed for the wake. Adding both the embalming practice and the cosmetic additions to the funeral cost can be upwards of 800 dollars. Despite the cost, for some people seeing their loved one again looking like themselves in a beautiful outfit may give them a sense of peace. For those who are not interested in embalming, The Catholic Church has become more welcoming to the idea of cremation within the death rituals, which allowed for families to make the best choice for them.
Even though I did not get to see my best friend’s body at her funeral, I think that this blog has allow me to get a better understanding on why I felt like I needed to. We have normalized traditions that can be abnormal or strange to others. Growing up familiar to this ‘strange’ rite of passage has made Catholics want to see the body at a vigil. This is what is normal and therefore often comforting in their tradition which aids in the mourning process.
No matter the way your death rituals were conducted, I hope you found peace Katie.
About Ally Craig
Ally is a third year Religious Studies major in the Concurrent Education program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is interested in how religious upbringing affects adults and the cultural relevance of religion within the 21st century.
[i] Oddie, M. (2018, February 26). Week 7 – Rites of Passage. Lecture presented in KINE 103, Queen’s University, Kingston.