Q. Why is it that Catholic funeral services so often begin with the funeral Mass? Why not feature simple, spontaneous memorial services, as some Protestant churches seem to prefer?
A. From the very beginning, the funeral Mass was the ordinary prayer celebrated for departed faithful. This tradition, clearly evident from the days of the catacombs, reflects much more than the need for remembering the deceased. It mirrors (1) adoration of God, Creator and Redeemer; (2) thanksgiving for the life of the deceased and the witness which he or she gave in this life; (3) reparation for the sins of the living and the dead; (4) celebration of our participation in the communion of saints; (5) consolation of the bereaved because of their "separation" from the deceased; (6) spiritual immersion of all involved in the mystery of Christ’s death and Resurrection; and (7) propitiation, which pertains to fulfilling the requirement of restoring the imbalance that our sins generate against the thrice-holy God.
In addition to all of the above-cited aspects of the Mass in the context of funeral exequies, death for a Christian is theologically related to the Paschal Mystery, of which baptism is a sign. A Christian who dies, mysteriously dies in Christ. Indeed, the New Testament Scriptures expressly describe a Christian’s death as a "dying of the Lord" (Rev. 14:13; I Thess 4:16; I Cor 15:16). Theologian Karl Rahner once argued that these Biblical texts mean that a Christian who dies in the state of grace experiences a death somewhat differently from that experienced by the unbaptized:
"This truth (which has always been present implicitly in practical Catholic doctrine) has not received its due measure of attention from theologians, but is, nevertheless, so clearly documented in the New Testament Scriptures that it may well claim a place as a doctrine of faith. (On the Theology of Death, p. 75.)
What is the difference? How is it manifest? For one thing, a dying Christian can be assured that in Christ the Resurrection is secured. Recall St. Paul’s words in First Corinthians: "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (15:55) Death for a believer means a new connection with life – eternal life. A Christian is destined for resurrection, a participant in the Paschal Mystery, symbolized by the Easter Candle, so prominently displayed during the funeral liturgy.
Death for a Christian is not a conclusion, but rather a beginning. As the first Preface of the funeral Mass proclaims, in death, life is changed but not ended. For a Christian, death constitutes the doorway, as it were, to eternal life in Christ, who even now invites (present tense indicative) the Christian disciple forward toward his everlasting embrace. As St. Augustine, one of the world’s greatest writers and saints, expressed it in the first section of his immortal Confessions, human beings were made for God and will never rest in their quest until they rest in God.
The "new beginning" that death can ensure is really another "birthday." Thus, the death of a martyr is described by the Church as his or her real "birthday" (in Latin, dies natalis), surely the only "birthday" that matters in the context of eternal life.
Rising to new life is set into motion through the Sacrament of Baptism, whose waters are blessed while plunging the Easter Candle into the Font, then lifted high above the water with these words:
"May all who are buried with Christ / in the death of baptism rise also/ with him to newness of life…" (The Sacramentary.)
For a Christian, therefore, death is studied and discussed ultimately in the context of faith. Despite all the so-called "definitions" of death that can be formulated (e.g., clinical death, biological death, real death), the most fundamental description is Biblical; i.e., St. Paul’s words in the Epistle to the Philippians: "Death means to go home and to be with Christ forever."