Photo courtesy of Fr. Richard Rutherford
A village cemetery in Crete. Bodies are exhumed a few decades after burial to make room for new burials, and bones are deposited in this charnel house.
Photo courtesy of Fr. Richard Rutherford
A village cemetery in Crete. Bodies are exhumed a few decades after burial to make room for new burials, and bones are deposited in this charnel house.
From the earliest known Christian traditions, Mass has been an important way people cared for the dead.

“Celebrating the funeral Mass with the body of the deceased present says ‘Death does not have the last word. This is the end of life as we know it, but it is not the end,’” said Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, emeritus professor of theology at University of Portland.

Father Rutherford, nicknamed “Old Father Death” for his extensive research into the topic, published The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals in 1990. It is among the definitive works on the church's revised funeral rites.

Father Rutherford has been studying the history of funerals since his 1960s dissertation, when he traced the development of the order of the funerals from the earliest fragments of manuscripts in 600s-700s through to the Second Vatican Council.

In the fourth century, churches were built on the sites of the burial places of the martyrs, and Christian funerals joyfully praised God even as they grieved the loss of the dead.  

By the middle of the 20th century, Catholic funerals had become pretty somber.
“The focus was more on the rescuing of the soul of the dead from their lot in Purgatory,” Father Rutherford said.

In the Rite of Funerals, published after the Second Vatican Council in 1970, the renewed focused was on the Paschal Mystery, to tie more closely the relationship of death and the Resurrection of Jesus. No longer were different funerals held for the different classes of people; the changes emphasized the equality in death expressed in the liturgy — that says hope for redemption is for all. Most priests’ vestments changed from black to white, as did the funeral pall that is draped over the casket.  

Father Rutherford has traveled around the world over his lifetime to research various projects, but his interest has always returned to burial traditions in different cultures. On the island of Crete, for example, the body is exhumed after many years, the bones are gathered and cleaned lovingly by family, and stored in a large village bone or charnel house. This tradition violates the American sense of permanence that comes with a burial location, but part of U.S. cultural attachment to permanence comes from the expansive amounts of land in this country.

“Death and the way in which people care for their dead is extremely diverse from culture to culture,” Father Rutherford said. It’s culture that dictates how people care for their dead, and early Christians brought their faith to those traditions. Eventually those two become inseparable.

And they change over time.

For example, by the 1960s, the Holy See had lifted the ban on cremation, which had long been requested by European Catholics due to shortage of further land for cemeteries. In North America during the same 1960s, the impetus for cremation was very different – a momentum to replace the traditional funeral all together. As secular cremation gained in popularity for reasons like cost and environmental concerns, the Church developed its pastoral stance to include cremation within the traditional American Catholic funeral. In the 1990s, the bishops issued both guidelines and an appendix on cremation to the Order of Christian Funerals.

Today, the Holy See is watching new forms of burial technology, like the ecologically favorable green burial. However, alkaline hydrolysis, often called “bio-cremation,” which facilitates decomposition by immersing the body in an alkaline solution, is not believed to observe due respect for the human body as required by Catholic faith and practice.

In the 1989, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the Order of Christian Funerals for use American dioceses. This added new prayers for the liturgy, like a special prayer for someone who committed suicide or a child who died before baptism. This document helped streamline the initial Rite of Funerals.

A trend in the past decade has been to personalize parts of the funeral service. These things sometimes pop up in places that aren’t appropriate for the funeral Mass.

“The funeral liturgy, as the church’s profession of faith, should take precedence,” Father Rutherford said.