Who May Be Buried with Catholic Funeral Rites?

I am a Catholic, and my husband of nearly 50 years is a member of the Assembly of God, a protestant church that’s popular down South, where he’s originally from. We were married in the Catholic Church and we raised our children as Catholics. There is no Assembly of God church in the area where we live now, so my husband cannot attend his church on Sunday. He doesn’t wish to come to Mass with me, either, so I always go alone. I’ve started wondering what would happen if my husband passes away, and we have to arrange a funeral for him. Is there any way he can be buried by a priest from my parish? Or will we just have to have a funeral without any kind of religious service at all?

–Ann, Buffalo, NY

Let’s look at this specific question in broader terms: who may be buried with Catholic funeral rites, and who may not?

As a rule, Catholic funeral rites, including a Catholic Mass, are for Catholic persons, who have the right to a church funeral by law (canon 1176.1). This generally holds true even if, at the time of death, the deceased person wasn’t a regularly practicing Catholic. Elderly persons and other shut-ins, for example, who would perhaps be attending Mass regularly if they were physically able to get there, can be buried with Catholic funeral rites from the local Catholic parish. This holds true even if the pastor there had never before been made aware of the shut-in’s presence within the boundaries of his parish! The deceased needn’t have been a registered or contributing member of a parish to be entitled to a Catholic funeral.

The Church may, and occasionally does, refuse Catholic funeral rites to Catholics in certain specific situations. Catholics who have publicly embraced heretical beliefs, or who are “manifest sinners,” such as members of violent gangs and organized-crime rings who are widely known to the public as such, are to be denied a Catholic funeral, if having one would cause public scandal among the Catholic faithful (canon 1184.1). The theological presumption behind the law here is that people who may have been raised as Catholics, but who have publicly accepted non-Catholic teachings or engaged in ongoing immoral activity, have in effect removed themselves from the Church. Holding a Catholic funeral Mass for such people may give the appearance that the Church is sanctioning their conduct, or attaching little importance to it — and the Church wishes to avoid sending such a message to Catholics at large.

At times this may require the pastor of a parish to make a difficult judgment call. Faced with grieving family members who are insisting that they want a funeral Mass for the deceased, a priest must act with great pastoral sensitivity, though without contradicting church discipline. If he is unsure how best to deal with the situation, he is to consult the bishop and follow his decision (canon 1184.2).

We have seen that the Church can, in certain instances, refuse Catholic funeral rites to Catholics who have effectively ceased to live their faith. But can the Church provide a Catholic funeral for a person who may have led an upright life, but who was never a member of the Catholic Church?

Canon 1183.3 provides a clear answer. A baptized person from a non-Catholic church may be permitted to have Catholic funeral rites, if (a) a minister from his own church is unavailable; (b) the diocesan bishop does not disapprove; and (c) the deceased person did not give any indication during life that he did not want such a funeral. This appears to be exactly the situation that you describe. Your husband may be a non-Catholic, but evidently he is not violently opposed to the Catholic faith, since he agreed to marry you in a Catholic church and did not prevent your children from being raised as Catholics. Unless he has specifically stated that he does not want to be buried with Catholic funeral rites, it seems reasonable to conclude that he would not be against it. And if there is no church of his denomination in the region where you live, then obviously no minister of his church is available to conduct his funeral.

So should you find yourself obliged to make funeral arrangements for your husband in the future, approach your pastor and tell him the situation. Unless your bishop has a reason for preventing it, your husband should be able to have Catholic funeral rites, including a Mass.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Pingback: Can a Public Sinner Have a Catholic Funeral? | Catholic Exchange()

  • I am a Catholic who married a protestant in England. Now I live in California and my Mother in Law passed away last week and her Funeral was held today in England. Unfortunately my children and I didn’t make it to her Funeral which makes us very sad. My children asked me if I could arrange a Memorial Service at my local Catholic Church which I have attended for the last ten years. Yesterday I approached my Priest and I have to admit I am deeply upset that my Priest was more concerned that my Mother in Law wasn’t a Catholic and he said that we don’t do memorials for Non Catholics. At this point my Priest could see I was not happy with his response and then he said, “Maybe your family can come to Mass and the Mass can be said in your Mother in Laws name.”

    This is not what I had in mind at all. This suggests that my extended family on my husbands side of the family who are Protestant come to the regular Mass, surrounded by people they don’t even know and my Priest will offer a quick prayer for my Mother in Law i.e. a woman I hold most dear and respect and my Priest seems unwilling to hold a ceremony whereby my family can gather in private to pay their respects and celebrate her life. My children and I are frankly rather stunned at the Priests response and we hope you can suggest an alternative that makes my children and I happy and will come up with a solution that will help us make up for the fact that we missed the funeral. We just want the opportunity to say farewell in a proper and appropriate manner and we thought the Catholic Church would have been more accommodating.