Both the Mass of Christian Burial and the Memorial Mass are ceremonies marking the death of a member of the Catholic Church. The key difference is that the remains of the deceased person are present during the Mass of Christian Burial (either the body or the ashes) but are absent during the Memorial Mass. The other differences between the two ceremonies relate directly to this key difference.
Mass of Christian Burial
The Catholic Church's preferred option is the Mass of Christian Burial. The Church feels that the presence of the deceased's remains helps mourners to focus on the full meaning of the ceremony, which includes the hope that the deceased person will one day share in the Resurrection of the dead. For a similar reason, when cremation rather than bodily burial is the chosen option, the Church prefers that the cremation take place after the Mass of Christian Burial -- so that the body is available for the Mass. Nevertheless, it is also permissible for cremation to take place prior to the Mass, in which case the ashes are present during the ceremony.
The Memorial Mass is the option used when the remains of the deceased person will not be present during the ceremony. This occurs for a variety of pastoral reasons and also where there are problems scheduling a Mass of Christian Burial. For example, if the person dies immediately before the Triduum (Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday), a Mass of Christian Burial cannot be held because no Masses are allowed on these days. Therefore, in that situation a funeral service -- a funeral ceremony with prayers but without a Mass -- is held, followed by the burial of the body. Then a Memorial Mass can be scheduled for a later time.
Scheduling of Mass
Because the remains of the deceased are present for the Mass of Christian Burial, it normally takes place shortly after the person's death, to facilitate the timely burial of the remains. Obviously, there are no such time pressures with respect to the Memorial Mass, which may be scheduled weeks after the death (for example, to accommodate family members who are delayed due to travel arrangements).
There are certain differences between the two ceremonies. These differences relate directly to the presence/absence of the remains of the deceased person. Any prayers (such as words about the body or words anticipating a burial) and ritual gestures (such as blessing with holy water) that presume the presence of human remains are omitted from the Memorial Mass. Yet the intention of the two ceremonies is the same, to mark the death of a member of the Catholic Church.
- Archdiocese of Detroit: Directives for Catholic Funerals
- Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington: What To Do When There is a Death in the Family
- Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary: Guidelines for the Order of Christian Funerals
- Mary, Mother of the Church: Frequently Asked Questions About Funerals