Catholicism can be found on every continent, and there are an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today. For Catholics all over the world, the funeral is an important ritual, and burying the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy. There are commonalities in Catholic funerals around the world, but different cultures differ in the ways they grieve, memorialize, and even perceive the dead. In some cases, Catholic practices coexist with traditional practices, in other places the culture provides conflict with the traditional point of view. How do Catholic funerals differ between countries?
The highest concentration of Catholics in the world can be found in Latin America. Catholic funerals in Latin American countries look very different than funerals in the United States and Europe. Brazil has the highest Catholic population in the world, and people going to Brazilian funerals typically dress more casually than those attending funerals in the United States. Funerals in Brazil are somber, flowers are not encouraged, and there is generally no eating or drinking at the funeral. It’s not uncommon for family and friends of the person who has died to express their grief through crying, wailing, and even kissing or hugging their loved one.
In Mexico, families hold a “velatorio” rather than a traditional viewing. During this time, the body is placed in a glass casket so that family members can view the body while they pray the rosary. They spend up to 48 hours holding a vigil for their loved one and bury many personal items with the person who has died. The body is buried right after the velatorio, and “novenas” or nine days of Masses are held after the burial, to allow family and friends the chance to continue to pray. The final farewell service is a fiesta and can take several months
In Portugal, where 81% of the population is Catholic, church bells ring to announce the death of a member of the community. The door to the house of the person who has died is often left open, so that members of the community may come in and mourn with that person’s family and friends. As the hearse carries the casket to the cemetery, mourners walk beside it, making for a slow funeral procession. Even the hearse itself is different in Portugal, resembling a van with a raised platform in the back to hold the casket, and back walls made of glass to allow for viewing of the casket and funeral arrangements.
Italy has the highest number of Catholics in Europe. When an Italian Catholic dies, it’s customary for friends to visit the family before the funeral service, to pay their respects and bring comfort, along with flowers, food, and wine. Funeral posters invite the entire town to the funeral, where attendees wear black and the casket is open so that mourners can kiss the cheek of the departed. Traditionally, wealthy Italian families hired professional mourners for the funeral procession.
Irish Catholics are known for their wakes. Held at the home of the person who has died, and lasting one or two nights, the traditional Irish wake features food, drink, visitors, and a rosary said at least once each day. Though the death is mourned, the wake is rarely solemn, as friends and family gather to share memories and funny stories. Once the wake has concluded, the body is taken from the house and moved to the Church, where the casket is then carried by 6 male friends or family members to the cemetery. People who are not part of the funeral procession will stop in the street and allow the mourners to pass, as a sign of respect for the person who has died.
In China, even those who are not practicing Catholics will often give their loved ones a Catholic funeral. Catholic funerals in China are elaborate, day-long affairs, with professional mourners and the shrill music of traditional wind instruments. The event is organized by the family, just as a traditional Chinese funeral would be, but if a priest is available, he will attend the funeral and lead the prayers. Rather than the traditional practices of ancestor worship, holy water is sprinkled on the gravesite and prayers are offered for the person who has died.
The Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of San Jose is proud to be a part of the Catholic Community in San Jose, California. Committed to providing a sacred place where families can remember loved ones in a peaceful and hope-filled setting, we welcome you and your family to visit our properties and experience the peace of these prayerful places. If you have questions, we’re happy to answer them. We have three locations: Calvary Catholic Cemetery in San Jose, Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Los Altos, and St. John the Baptist Cemetery in Milpitas. If you’d like to know more about our properties, or you need to know where to send flowers, you can contact us through our website, or call Calvary at 833-428-0379, Gate of Heaven at 833-304-0763, or St. John the Baptist at 833-428-0379.