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The significance of prayer in Christian bereavement cannot be overestimated.

While prayer from the heart is probably best at such times, it can be difficult to express one’s feelings in words. Here books (see bibliography) can help, also prayer cards (if a particularly appropriate one is found, more copies can usually be ordered through a Christian bookshop – list at end of bibliography).

Prayer cards can be included with letters of sympathy, as can quotations which have come to have a special meaning for us.

Short prayers or quotations can be inserted in parish magazines at the end of a register of recent deaths.

Service books from different Christian traditions will also provide appropriate and meaningful prayers for private use or for use during the funeral service.

Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father, who cares for you today, will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.

St Francis de Sales, 1567-1622

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of Your glory and dominions world without end.

John Donne, 1572-1613



The idea of purgatory postulates that, because we are unlikely to have reached a state of perfection by the end of our earthly lives, we are not fit to see God face to face without some form of purification. Because of the way this idea has sometimes been presented, occasionally the death of a loved partner or friend will reawaken in a Roman Catholic brought up in a traditional - even old-fashioned - way many fears and anxieties.

“For too many people the word ‘purgatory’ simply conjures up a watered-down version of hell in which the predominant element is suffering and punishment, the pain of which is only mitigated by the fact that it will eventually come to an end. This is a terrible perversion of the [Roman Catholic] Church’s doctrine and one which owes more to pagan mythology than to the teaching of the Gospel.” This is how Sr Mary Cecily Boulding, OP, introduces the subject of purgatory in her contribution to the Catholic Truth Society’s series ‘In the Light of the Catechism’ (Purgatory, CTS Do641, 1995 - a most valuable little booklet on which this sheet is based).


“The actual doctrine of purgatory, as defined by the Church, is so brief and succinct that our human minds … have dressed it up and filled all the gaps in our real knowledge with imaginative fantasies …” (Boulding, p. 3).

Though the first definition (Council of Florence, 1439) asserted the fact of a state of ‘purgatory’ after death, the Latin word purgatorium did not imply a place. “It subsumed the idea … of cleansing or purifying sufferings. The council also stated baldly that suffrages (Latin : suffragium - help), that is the prayers and good works of the living, could help the dead who were ‘in’ purgatory” (p. 4).

Over time, the more fantastic excesses of mediaeval imagery led the churches of the Reformation to reject the doctrine of purgatory and the Council of Trent (1563) to reiterate it in plain and simple terms. Vatican II repeated the essential doctrine also in a restrained and positive manner (Constitution on the Church, 49-50) and this is probably the most helpful definition for us today.

“When the Lord comes in his majesty and all the angels with him (cf. Matt. 25.31) death will be destroyed and all things will be subject to him (cf. I Cor. 15.26-27). Meanwhile some of his disciples are exiles on earth. Some have finished with this life and are being purified. Others are in glory ‘beholding clearly God himself, triune and one, as he is’ (Council of Florence). But in various ways and degrees we all partake in the same love for God and neighbour, and all sing the same hymn of glory to our God; for all who belong to Christ, having his Spirit, form one church and cleave together in him (cf. Eph. 4.16).”

In modern times

Between 1983 and 1987 the question of purgatory was discussed at length by the members of ARCIC II, during the dialogue leading to the Agreed Statement on Salvation and the Church. At that time the outcome was inconclusive, but the 1991 Consensus Statement on Justification achieved by the English Roman Catholic-Methodist Committee concludes that:

“Methodists and Roman Catholics are united in confessing that perfect holiness is necessary before a person can see God face to face (cf. Heb. 12.14). When a person has reached in this life a measure of holiness which falls short of perfection, then it is believed that this perfection is conferred in the transition from this life to eternal life. Granted such basic agreement some variety of attitudes and practices may be tolerated in a united Church.”

Many have tried to imagine an interim state after death during which the soul attains that perfection which it may not have achieved in life, and the Consensus Statement notes that while Methodists usually envisage a more or less instantaneous transformation (at the point of death), [Roman] Catholic imagination veers towards a long-drawn-out process that is somewhat, or very, painful (Boulding, p. 16).

The statement of the eminent theologian Vladimir Lossky sums up the Orthodox position which has considerable attraction - that, at the second coming of Christ, the whole created universe will enter into perfect union with God; such perfection will be realised, or made manifest, differently in each human person who has received the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Church. However the limits of the Church beyond death, and the possibilities of salvation for those who have not known the light in this life, remain for us a mystery of the divine mercy - a mercy on which we dare not count, but one to which we cannot place any limits (Boulding, pp.17-18).


Decisions about funerals have to be made when we are at our most vulnerable. We have just lost someone we greatly love and we are likely to be in a state of great shock. It is of special importance for interchurch couples to discuss freely their own personal feelings about bereavement and funerals, so that when the day comes for arrangements to be made a plan can be acted upon which they have long ago agreed on jointly.

It may be helpful for interchurch families first to read about the decisions and the experiences, both happy and less so, of others before trying to think about their own situation. All are true stories, but names have been changed to protect identities.

Felicity and Frank
Felicity and Frank had been married for many years when Frank died in 1990. In the past there had not been a great deal of co-operation between their local churches, and they often felt frustrated. Yet Frank’s funeral was an occasion of hope for Felicity. Her Methodist minister took the service, their son read the lesson, and Frank’s Roman Catholic priest took the committal at the graveside in the local cemetery. Because Felicity had had to be married in Frank’s church, it was his wish that he should be buried from Felicity’s chapel and that their graves should eventually be side by side. It was his way of redressing the balance, and Felicity found this arrangement, which they had agreed together, very comforting. She felt that at long last they had together achieved something.

Emily and Edward
Emily’s husband Edward died unexpectedly aged 57. They had never discussed funerals and Edward had only occasionally attended services in her local Roman Catholic church, usually when their children were involved. He regularly received communion at weekday services in an Anglican church near his place of work.

When Edward died, his sons asked the vicar of the church where he had worshipped during the week to conduct the funeral at the Anglican church nearest the family home. Emily’s Roman Catholic priest was present at the funeral as one of the congregation, and most of the small group with whom Edward had worshipped during the week came over to the service. There were present some members of the regular Anglican congregation and of Emily’s Roman Catholic church, besides relatives and friends (some agnostic) – Emily says that she found it very comforting to be surrounded by so many people of all traditions or none. The Anglican priest conducting Edward’s funeral was unwilling to offer communion to Roman Catholics, so there was no eucharist. Emily’s priest made a special point of speaking about Edward at the Sunday mass, calling him “a good man” and “an example to us all” – despite earlier difficult discussions between them – and he was very kind and caring to Emily.

Edward was buried in the Anglican churchyard, and Emily will eventually be buried in the same grave, though understandably she has asked for the rites of the Roman Catholic church, with a requiem mass before the interment. Edward’s name is already entered in the Book of Remembrance at Emily’s church.

Andrea and Adam
When a diagnosis showed that Andrea’s husband Adam had a very serious illness, the news came at a time when his own United Reformed church was in process of calling a new minister. Andrea told her Roman Catholic priest about Adam’s illness and he at once responded by offering himself as Adam’s minister during this period. Two or three times a week he visited Adam and Andrea and held a simple and beautiful service with them in their home, giving them communion together, and he was with Adam the day he died. It followed naturally that Adam’s funeral should be conducted in the United Reformed church with both a United Reformed minister and Andrea’s priest taking part.

Gwen and Gerald
Gwen chose the hymns and readings for her husband Gerald’s funeral, but her wish to receive communion, along with other Anglican members of the family, at the requiem mass, although discussed by Gerald’s Roman Catholic priest with her Anglican vicar, was not granted. She had suggested that her vicar should take an active part in the mass and bring the family the reserved sacrament, but at the time (1988) he did not feel able to ask his bishop’s permission to do this. However, he with a number of members of the Anglican congregation attended the requiem, as did the local Baptist pastor (there was no minister at the Baptist church then). Gwen’s and Gerald’s son suggested that the family should ask for a blessing at the requiem and this was given to them – the first time such a thing had happened. Since then Gwen has been able to receive a blessing whenever she has attended mass.

Gerald’s ashes were buried in the Garden of Remembrance at the Anglican church, so it was the Anglican priest who said the words of committal.

Monica and Michael
Monica has had experience of several funerals among interchurch families. She believes that as it is the living who are taking part in the funeral, they deserve a say in what happens, so we should beware of hedging the arrangements about with conditions. She recommends at least one good cheerful hymn, and sees hymns as “a great bond in common” between the various traditions. She says, “My husband hated funerals, so we never discussed them.” For Michael’s funeral she chose “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”, to which she had walked up the aisle at their wedding, and “The Lord’s my shepherd”, which pleased everyone. He is buried in the local cemetery; in November, when there is a Catholic procession to the cemetery, her husband’s grave is also blessed.

Paul and Petra
Paul and Petra were eagerly looking forward to the birth of their first child when Petra learned that there was no trace of the baby’s heartbeat. Shortly afterwards she had a miscarriage. At this sad and difficult time they were fortunate in receiving tremendous support from those around them, especially from a Roman Catholic university chaplain who was already a friend. He came to their home and combined the Catholic rite of blessing of parents after a miscarriage with a celebration of the eucharist for them both – “a beautiful way of acknowledging that our child was now with God”.

Melissa and Martin
When Martin was suddenly taken into hospital, neither he nor his wife Melissa realised that diagnosis would reveal a very advanced cancer, nor that he would not come home again. They had been married for 35 years and had lived in the same town for the last 20 of these.

Fewer than twelve months before his death, Martin had been ordained an Anglican priest. He had long been active in his local council of churches and was its president at the time he was taken ill, so he was well known in the various churches in the town. He and Melissa discussed his funeral arrangements, and Martin insisted that it should be as ecumenical as possible, with as much “from the Roman Catholic side” as could be allowed, for the sake of others who would find themselves in the same situation one day.

When the time came, Martin’s coffin was taken the night before the funeral to the Roman Catholic church, where the mass of the Resurrection was celebrated (using the Peruvian gloria he loved and quiet Taizé chants which had sustained him in hospital). The gospel was read by Martin’s Anglican vicar, and the homily given by Melissa’s Roman Catholic parish priest who reminded the “mixed” congregation that other Christians would be welcome to come up to receive a blessing at communion time. This was a cause of sadness for Melissa, as Martin’s dream and hope had been that all could share communion on this occasion, yet the way it happened was moving. At the end, everyone was invited to file past the coffin and bless it, using holy water or not, as wished – a custom from Melissa’s French background.

Martin had understood Melissa’s need for a mass in her Roman Catholic church, where they had both regularly worshipped and, for later on, the memory of his coffin there. The coffin lay in the church overnight and then was taken to Martin’s own Anglican church the following morning.

At the funeral service, the Baptist minister offered prayers, and the newly elected president of the council of churches (a Roman Catholic) and the Methodist minister read the lessons. A lady from the Evangelical Church later told Melissa, “Heaven will be like this – a crowd from various churches, but all singing together Thine be the glory …” Again the coffin was blessed, everyone touching a cross much loved by Martin and being handed, by the Salvation Army captain, a little prayer card with some of Martin’s last words of trust in God. The same card had been given out in the Roman Catholic church, too.

By Martin’s express wish there was an Anglican eucharist, for family members only, at the crematorium; it was celebrated on his coffin (Melissa’s wish) and the next day his ashes were quietly placed under the church which he had served.

Melissa writes: “One sure bonus is two caring communities for the one left behind, not just one …”

James and Judith
James and Judith are in their mid sixties. They have no children. They have talked a little about funeral arrangements and both have chosen cremation rather than burial. Each hopes that the surviving partner will be able to arrange for a simple and dignified funeral service, without a eucharist or requiem, conducted by a sympathetic priest. Judith would like the congregation to sing William Williams’s splendid hymn, “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”, which was sung at their wedding, but does not want to impose restrictions on anyone. They have gone no further than this at the time of writing.

Aidan and Annette
Aidan had always had good health, so it was a great shock to both him and Annette, his wife, when he developed “deep” jaundice and this turned out to be masking an aggressive and fast-moving cancer. The illness took hold so quickly that there was no time for any discussion and within weeks Annette found herself having to make funeral arrangements based on much earlier conversations and on what she remembered of Aidan’s comments on funerals they had attended together.

Each had long ago told the other that there should be no requiem mass or eucharist (which they felt would be divisive) as part of the funeral, and each hoped that the surviving partner would be able to arrange a simple and dignified service. It was a help to Annette that Aidan came from a Church of England background, though he himself had become a Roman Catholic as a young man. Fortunately, when she came to talk to Aidan’s parish priest, they were able to turn to the book An Order of Christian Funerals (1991), which is approved by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales and makes provision for a funeral liturgy outside mass “for pastoral reasons” (among others).

The idea of a funeral without a mass was so unusual that Aidan’s parish priest felt it necessary to reassure his parishioners in his weekly newsletter that it really was an approved form of service. He co-operated fully with Annette in choosing prayers which seemed most fitting for Aidan; Annette preferred those which had echoes of Biblical language, and as the coffin was to be received into the church only at the time of the funeral she suggested that it might be brought in during the saying of sentences of Scripture, in the Anglican manner (and was invited to choose the sentences she preferred).

Annette asked if in place of an Old Testament reading a friend might read the account from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress of the death of Mr Valiant-for-Truth which ends “And all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.” For the New Testament reading she chose the “many mansions” passage from St John’s gospel (14:1-6). And she asked for two well-known hymns, “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer” and “Love divine, all loves excelling”, to be sung during the service. However, the funeral liturgy outside mass lays special emphasis on the “Song of Farewell” which comes at the end of the service, and Annette decided on the modern hymn based on Isaiah 55:12, “You shall go out with joy”, so that the moment when the coffin left the church for the crematorium would be one of hope rather than of continuing sadness. (Many people commented on this choice after the service and seemed to approve of it. The idea that “the trees of the field shall clap their hands” was also particularly appropriate for Aidan, a lover of nature and a landscape painter.)

As the funeral took place in Aidan’s church, naturally his parish priest presided, but Annette’s Anglican vicar, the curate from the Catholic church, and Canon Martin Reardon (co-chair of the Association of Interchurch Families, who had known Aidan and Annette for more than twenty years and who gave a moving and uplifting address) followed the coffin into the church saying the sentences together, and Annette’s vicar led the intercessions. At the point when the coffin was about to be removed, Aidan’s parish priest invited the other clergy to join him in giving a blessing. This generous gesture helped to emphasise the ecumenical nature of the occasion.

The short service of committal at the crematorium also followed the outline given in An Order of Christian Funerals (there is special provision for a committal when a funeral liturgy has immediately preceded it). Although there is a point in the service for a hymn, Annette felt that this could be left out as three hymns had been sung at the church and there were likely to be only a few people at the crematorium. So the final act of farewell was kept very short and simple. Annette felt that she had done her best to fulfil Aidan’s wishes, and that she had been given great support by members of their two parishes and by their many friends of all denominations and none.


A funeral has a dual focus: on the dead person and on our own hope of eternal life. It should also take account of the mourners’ own profound sense of grief and loss.

For the dead person, a funeral is an appropriate memorial and thanksgiving, indicated in the final commendation of the soul to the peace of God and the recognition of our own hopes and longings for eternal life in Christ.

For the bereaved, a funeral is equally important as a means of saying farewell to someone we have loved and with whom we have shared much. This is as true for children as for adults; being open and honest with children and allowing them to attend a funeral if they wish is a means of supporting a child as he or she negotiates the way through the process of grieving.

All the principal Christian denominations in Great Britain have funeral services with elements in common, and there is nothing to prevent anyone from drawing on more than one tradition in compiling a service.

Some people might find it helpful:

  • to have the coffin in the home prior to the funeral;
  • to have the coffin taken to the church the night before the funeral, with a service there to receive it;
  • to have a memorial book at such a service/at the funeral in which names and addresses of those present can be entered. (Some undertakers leave cards in the pews for this purpose.) The existence of such a book needs to be brought to the congregation’s attention at the end of the service.
  • to work out the funeral service for themselves as part of the process of grieving and in recognition of their responsibilities;
  • to remember the role of secular readings as well as Biblical ones;
  • to bear in mind that music brings in a powerful personal element irrespective of its source (this may be particularly important if children are involved), and that family members or friends might appreciate being asked to play an instrument or sing at the service;
  • to consider inviting friends/relatives to take a speaking part in the service (with an alternative person in the background in case the invited participant is overcome by emotion);
  • to plan some form of reception, even if very simple, to follow the funeral to meet the need for people to talk through what has happened (at home, in a church hall, etc.);
  • to use the form in this pack for pre-planning a funeral (copies could be lodged in parish records as well as kept on file at home – don’t forget to tell people where to find the form);
  • to consider the possibility of a memorial service (with or without a eucharist), held at a time when friends and relatives who might not be able to have time off work for a funeral would be able to come;
  • to create after the funeral a personal anthology, including helpful prayers, poems and quotations sent by family and friends, perhaps extending to a photographic record of a life, with comments.

Funeral with a Eucharist

While some will not want a eucharist during the actual funeral, others will find it helpful.

A eucharist does however raise the question of whether or not members of other churches will be able to receive communion.

It is doubtful if a Roman Catholic bishop would permit open communion, and though some priests would take the responsibility on themselves, others would insist on episcopal permission.

Having a celebration of the eucharist could mean that bereaved people would be asking permission to receive communion in a Roman Catholic church at a time when they are very vulnerable, and when a refusal would be devastating.

The present position as stated in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (1993) is that, where norms are established for judging situations of grave and pressing need (by the Directory itself, by the diocesan bishop, or by the Episcopal Conference), then

# 131. The conditions under which a Catholic minister may administer the sacrament of the Eucharist … to a baptised person … are that the person be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed.

The teaching document One Bread One Body, produced by the three Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, published in 1998, presents general norms on sacramental sharing between [Roman] Catholics and other Christians. Paragraph 109 discusses what constitutes a “unique occasion” in the life of a family or individual for which admission to Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Church may be allowed. Paragraphs 110-111 deal with the possible admission to Communion of both bride and groom during a marriage ceremony where one partner is not a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Paragraph 112 lists other “unique occasions for joy or sorrow” when people might ask for admission to Communion, including “the immediate family of the deceased at a Funeral Mass”, adding: “Each situation will be judged individually according to the norms.”*

Individual dioceses in various parts of the world have issued their own specific statements about participation in funerals. Two of these, which are of particular interest, are quoted below.

On Advent Sunday 1999 the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York state, USA, issued norms (revised and reissued 1 October 2000) for “Special circumstances for the admission of other Christians to communion at Catholic celebrations of the Eucharist” in the diocese. In a section covering sacramental sharing with Episcopal (a footnote indicates that “this also refers to members of the Anglican Communion throughout the world”) and Protestant Christians, there is specific mention of “Catholic Funeral Mass”:

“Another example of a pastoral situation that might constitute a case of ‘grave necessity’ and therefore qualify as an exceptional circumstance is the funeral Mass. At a funeral, a Christian spouse, family member, relative or friend of a deceased Catholic might, in keeping with canon 844,4, ask to receive the Eucharist so as to participate more fully in the funeral Mass to unite more closely with the family of the deceased and to derive spiritual strength and grace at a time of great sorrow.

*This paragraph is quoted in the leaflet prepared for the National Board of Catholic Women by its Ecumenical Standing Committee, May my husband (a Christian of another Church) ever receive Holy Communion with me? How? (2000)

The principles and norms of canon law and the Directory can be applied by priests, deacons and pastoral ministers in particular cases for individuals who request Eucharist on the occasion of funerals. … Because of the complexity of conditions, it is permitted neither to offer a general invitation to all people at the funeral Mass to share in the Eucharist, nor to forbid them by public announcement.

When all five conditions of canon 844,4 are met, the pastor may give another Christian permission to receive Holy Communion at the funeral liturgy.”

In 2001 the Australian Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, New South Wales, issued Real Yet Imperfect: Pastoral Guidelines for Sacramental Sharing, a condensed version of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations within the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. The section Eucharistic Celebrations includes this statement:

“Communicant members of other Christian traditions who manifest Catholic belief in the Eucharist, and who wish to receive the Eucharist, may do so on certain occasions by way of exception, and provided the conditions set out above are met.” [These conditions are as #131 of the Directory, quoted above.] “Such occasions for individual decision-making may include … Funeral Masses …”

In the section Interchurch Marriages there is specific mention of Funerals:

“Deceased members of interchurch families may be buried with Catholic rites, especially in the case of a deceased spouse. Deceased Catholics may in turn be buried using the rites of another Christian denomination should there be a justifying reason to do so.”

If a Roman Catholic priest is willing to offer a blessing to members of other churches attending a funeral Mass, it is important that a clear invitation to come to receive a blessing should be given during the service. A blessing can also be offered if a eucharistic service is held in a church of another Christian community and Roman Catholics are present.

Funeral without a Eucharist
It should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and in Scotland, provides two forms of the funeral Liturgy: Funeral Mass and Funeral Liturgy outside Mass. Both can be found in An Order of Christian Funerals (Geoffrey Chapman, 1991), prepared by the Liturgy Office of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (a Joint Commission of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences), and authorised by the Episcopal Conferences of England and Wales and of Scotland. Provision is also made for two forms of funeral liturgy for children.

The Funeral Liturgy outside Mass may be used (1) when the funeral Mass is not permitted (on solemnities of obligation, Holy Thursday and the Easter Triduum, and Sundays of Advent, Lent and the Easter season); (2) when it is not possible to celebrate the funeral Mass before the committal (for example, if a priest is not available); (3) for pastoral reasons. It can if wished include a distribution of Holy Communion.

In all these liturgies there is a choice of prayers within each part of the service.

This article is published by the British Association of Interchurch Families.