Differences Between a Prayer Service and a Funeral Mass

by David Kenneth

Catholic and Orthodox Christian funerals consist of multiple parts. There is usually a prayer service, or vigil, where people can sit with the body of the deceased. Next is the funeral mass, with its highly regulated format. Last is the committal, in which the priest lowers the body into the ground. Unlike many Protestant denominations, these Christian groups distinguish prayer service from the funeral service, referred to here as a mass. The two ceremonies occur in different locales and serve different purposes. The vigil prayer service is for remembering the life of the deceased individual; meanwhile, the funeral mass celebrates the ability of Christians, in general, to enter heaven because of the grace of God.

The Vigil Prayer Service

The vigil takes place prior to the mass and burial. Since church regulations state the vigil prayer service must not occur directly before the funeral mass, people schedule the two on separate days. Worshippers hold this service in private residences, funeral homes and churches. The vigil is a time to be with the body of the deceased.

Purpose of Vigil Prayer Service

Vigils are the official prayer service of Catholic and Orthodox Christian funeral ceremonies. Family and friends use this occasion to recall the life of the deceased. The church allows attendees to tell stories and reminisce about the past. The prayer service has an ultimate purpose of remembering the Christian life of the newly departed. There are no other instances within the official funeral ceremony for people to focus on the life of the individual. After the vigil prayer service, the funeral ceremony takes a different direction, emphasizing a more general Christian message.

The Funeral Mass

The funeral mass usually takes place on a weekday following the vigil. No masses are held on Sundays or holidays. In most cases, a church is the site of the mass, with a priest or deacon presiding. The home parish of the deceased must host the mass. In extraordinary cases, members may petition the local bishop for a change of venue. If granted, the funeral mass can take place elsewhere.

Purpose of the Funeral Mass

Funeral masses must follow a prescribed pattern as listed in the Order of Christian Funerals. This church service is similar to every other mass, including the offering of communion. The focus of the mass is not on the life of the deceased. The preceding vigil prayer service is the opportunity for family and friends to recall time with their loved one. In contrast, during the funeral mass, the priest emphasizes how the death and resurrection of Jesus made possible the salvation of human souls. The church requires a homily, rather than a eulogy. A homily is a short sermon that highlights the meaning behind certain scriptures from the Bible. In this instance, the scriptures usually concern Jesus’ role in ensuring Christians enter heaven after death.

About the Author

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.

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