Open-casket viewing

Question: I recently attended a Rosary and viewing of a Catholic parishioner at a local Protestant church. The reason the Rosary and viewing were held at a Protestant church was that our local parish policy states that an open-casket viewing is not allowed in the church. Is this a local parish rule, a diocesan rule or a Catholic Church rule? I never have heard of such a rule before. 

-- Name and address withheld 

Answer: I myself have never heard of such a rule either, and I can safely say that the regulations of your parish are unusual.

Catholics around the world remember the long viewing of the remains of Pope John Paul II broadcast worldwide. Thus the Catholic Church clearly does allow such viewing. (Personally, I prefer the term "visitation," but we can stay with "viewing" for our purposes here.)

The official rites for the funeral of a Catholic are quite flexible, and they are able to accommodate a variety of situations. Normally, a Catholic funeral involves a vigil service held on the evening before the funeral Mass. Vigil services are usually held either at a funeral home or at the parish church.

If the vigil is held at the church, then an official rite of reception of the casket precedes it. The rite is called "Vigil for the Deceased with Reception at the Church." This rite prescribes that at the entrance to the church the casket is blessed with holy water and, optionally, a pall is placed over the casket. Then after the procession, some Christian symbols, such as a Book of the Gospels, a Bible or a cross, may be placed on the casket (again optional).

If the pall and Christian symbols are placed on the casket during the rite of reception, then it does not make sense to take them off after the procession to the altar and open the casket for viewing. In this case, there is a closed-casket vigil service without a viewing.

But what if the family wants the casket opened for a viewing before the vigil? The solution is to use a simple form of the rite of reception and not put the pall and/or Christian symbols on the casket at the rite of reception, but to wait until the viewing and vigil are complete.

May the casket be open during the vigil? The vigil service instructions clearly envisage that it can at the end of the vigil in the church.

They stipulate: "A gesture, for example, signing the forehead of the deceased with the sign of the cross" by the officiant may take place (see No. 97). One cannot bless the forehead of the deceased if the casket is closed!

As I already stated, the official rites for Catholic funerals are flexible and may be adapted to various situations and locations regarding the vigil. If the church allows an open-casket vigil, then parish regulations on funerals should not rule them out.

While I do not know the reason behind your parish regulations, I would judge that your parish leadership is interpreting the official regulations in a rigid manner.

While the official rites say nothing about viewing in a church, I would judge this omission to be deliberate move on the part of the Holy See to allow local custom to be implemented.

In most Catholic cultures, a viewing is a familiar part of the funeral process.

Your parish leadership may not want to have to deal with the crying and lamenting, with people throwing themselves on the casket and the general hubbub that sometimes accompanies open-casket viewing.

This signifies to me that your parish leadership may need to loosen up and be more pastorally responsive. It was unfortunate that, in your situation, the family in question had to have recourse to a Protestant church. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.