Common Christian Funeral Traditions

Updated May 19, 2020
A Funeral Service

Christians have a strong belief in the afterlife. Christians believe that when a loved one dies, the burial service should focus on their loved one achieving eternal peace in Heaven. The burial service is also designed to give strength to those grieving so they can cope with their loss.

Steps Involved in Christian Burials

There are a number of steps involved in Christian burials before the body is interred in consecrated ground. These steps are:

Preparation of the Body

Before the burial, the deceased person's body is washed. It is believed that one must be clean before entering the Kingdom of Heaven. After cleansing, the body is dressed (usually in the person's best clothing). Christians are accepting of embalming, so this may occur with the body prior to the funeral service. The body is placed in a casket where it is displayed on a covered stand known as a catafalque. The person's hands are crossed on top of the chest as they were when they would have received Communion. If desired, a prayer book or rosary may be placed in his or her hands.

Who Prepares the Body for the Burial?

In modern North American society, these preparations are performed by the funeral director. In the past, the family members performed these duties, and the body was laid out at home before burial.

The Christian Wake

The wake is the modern version of the ancient practice of sitting with the dead. Friends and family members are received at the funeral home to share in the family's grief. Flowers and photographs of the deceased may be displayed at the funeral home during the wake.

The Casket Display at the Wake

The casket is displayed and may be opened or closed, depending on the circumstances of their death and the family's preference. The purpose of displaying the body is to allow the mourners to acknowledge the reality of their loved one's death.

Funeral Service

Prayer Service at the Wake

In some Christian denominations, the custom is to have a prayer service at the wake. Scriptures and prayers with a comforting theme are read during the service. A eulogy may be given at this time as well.

The Christian Funeral Service

Although there are differences by denomination, a Christian funeral service has the same rites involved.

  1. If the funeral service is to be held in a church, the priest or minister enters first. The casket is carried by pallbearers and the family members follow. When the service is concluded, the same protocols are followed when leaving the church.
  2. Prayers are read and hymns are sung throughout the service. They are specifically chosen for their sense of hope and comfort. Christians acknowledge their loss but look forward to being reunited with their loved ones at a later time.
  3. The priest or minister will give a sermon or homily. It will remind those assembled for the funeral of the Christian perspective about death; that those who have passed on in faith will have eternal life with God. By his own resurrection, Jesus conquered death for all Christians.
  4. Passages from the Bible will be read. A passage from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Gospels will be selected for inclusion in the service. Holy Communion will be included in the funeral service.
  5. Once the service has concluded, family members and friends will leave the church and go to the gravesite. The cemetery may be next to the church or the casket may need to be transported to another location by hearse.

The Christian Burial

Christian burials also include a brief service at the gravesite. Prayers are spoken by the priest or minister as the body is committed to the grave. Friends and family members say their final goodbyes. This may include placing flowers on the casket. A small amount of dirt may be placed on the casket as well.

people at a funeral in a cemetery

Reception Following a Christian Funeral

Following the funeral service, it is a tradition for the family to host a reception for those who attended the funeral. Food and drink are provided. This is an opportunity for the immediate family to receive emotional support in their time of grief.

Christian Funeral Etiquette

There are a few good general rules to abide by when it comes to funeral etiquette. These include:

How to Dress at a Christian Funeral Service

When attending a funeral, it is best to wear attire that is conservative and respectful. Black or another dark color is always your best option. You should always avoid wearing bright, flashy or glittery clothing to a funeral. A good rule of thumb is: dress to blend in.

Should I Give Flowers?

It is not mandatory to give flowers (or a plant) but it is a nice way to express your love for the person who passed. Condolence flowers can also bring comfort and love to the grieving family members. Flowers, in general, traditionally represent growth, new life and movement forward. The various flowers that are appropriate to include in a condolence arrangement are carnations, chrysanthemums, lilies, and roses.

Should I Give a Gift?

It is not necessary to give a sympathy gift, but it is acceptable and usually appreciated. You can give a traditional card, flower, plant or food but there are other unique gift options you may want to consider such as a restaurant gift certificate, memorial stepping stone, photo album, memorial jewelry or a charitable donation in their loved one's honor. You can also offer up a gift of service to help them with daily chores or routines such as doing their grocery shopping or their laundry.

Can I Give Money?

It is also acceptable to give money as a gift. But if you choose to give money, be as discreet as possible. This is not meant to embarrass but to help in their time of need.

Frequently Asked Questions About Christian Funerals

If you've never attended a Christian funeral before, or are unfamiliar with the religious rites and etiquette, it's natural to have questions prior to the ceremony. Make sure you pick up a copy of the funeral program so you can follow along during the service.

Is There Music at a Christian Funeral?

Christian funeral services often start with some type of music such as organ, vocal or instrumentals. Music is also often played after the blessing, and as the coffin is carried outside for burial. It may also be played after the burial is over and the priest gives the final blessing.

Can Children Attend a Funeral?

Children may attend a Christian wake, funeral and burial at the discretion of the parents.

What are the Common Rites at a Christian Funeral?

The rites at a Christian funeral usually include:

  • The offering of prayers
  • A eulogy in honor of the person who has passed
  • Reading passages from the Bible aloud
  • Burial of the deceased in consecrated ground (in Catholicism, the Rite of Committal)

A Christian funeral may also include singing appropriate hymns from the Bible.

Pink flowers in the church

Is Cremation Allowed in Lieu of Burying a Body?

Cremation was originally considered blasphemy, but this is no longer the case. For Catholics, the Pope allowed cremations to occur in 1963 and allowed priests to officiate in 1966, as long as the ashes are kept in an urn or other reverent container and not scattered. Cremation has been allowed among Protestant Christians since World War I. It is strongly discouraged among members of the Mormon church and forbidden in the Eastern Orthodox church.

Are There Differences Between Catholic and Protestant Funerals?

While there are many similarities, there are a few differences between Catholic and Protestant funeral traditions:

  • Catholics believe in the concept of purgatory, where souls go for a period of time before they ascend to Heaven. Purgatory is a place for people who have sinned but not severely enough for Hell. A specific goal of a Catholic funeral's prayers is to ask God for mercy for the deceased, which is different from other Christian denomination's funerals.
  • Catholics tend to hold wakes prior to the funeral service in a church or funeral home, and a prayer vigil is included in the wake. Sometimes they are held in the home of the family. Catholic wakes tend to be held at night, and in some cultures wakes can last for days. Protestant wakes are traditionally held at the funeral home the night before the church service.
  • Catholics may hold a rosary ceremony where the participants speak traditional rosary prayers. This is usually held at the wake.
  • A eulogy is not held during the mass but usually at the prayer vigil. Protestants give the eulogy as part of the actual funeral service.
  • Catholic funerals tend to have more rites and prayers than other Christian denominations and more music during the service.
  • Catholic funerals are officiated by a priest and includes a mass with the Holy Communion and absolution. Protestant funeral services are officiated by a minister or pastor and do not include absolution or communion.
  • Catholics require the ground to be blessed before burying the body. If the body is being interned in a mausoleum, then that must be blessed first. The blessing includes prayers and holy water. For Protestants, this step is not necessary and also is why Protestants are more accepting of scattering cremated ashes than Catholics are.

Do You Need to be a Christian to Attend Christian Funeral Services?

It is not necessary to be a Christian or a member of a specific denomination to attend Christian funerals and wakes. All that is required is that you respect and follow the steps of the ceremony, including reading prayers aloud and singing, and are welcomed by the family of the deceased.

When Does a Christian Funeral Service Take Place?

A Christian funeral service usually occurs from about two to three days after death, up to a week after the person has passed away. Funerals may take place on any day of the week, though they generally do not occur on Sundays in Catholicism.

How Long is a Christian Funeral Service?

The service may run about 30 to 45 minutes. Services by the grave may take around 20 to 30 minutes.

Respecting Christian Funeral Traditions

The burial service is all about honoring and paying respect to your loved one that passed. The burial service itself should reflect on your loved one's life, it should offer up a prayer that your loved one gets into Heaven and it should give strength and comfort to those who are grieving and help them cope with their loss. While Christian funeral rites are solemn affairs, they are a time for the family to come together and reflect on their loved one and his or her presence in their lives.

Common Christian Funeral Traditions