Traditional Catholic funeral rites, like many other Catholic rituals, include a rosary prayer service on the evening before a funeral. Though pre-Christian spiritual traditions used prayer beads, the custom spread throughout Christendom during the thirteenth century and became associated with Catholic tradition. After Vatican II, rosary services were permitted, but not required on the eve of a funeral. Families and loved ones decide whether or not to conduct a rosary service in contemporary Catholic practice.
Catholics believe St. Dominic introduced the rosary to the Catholic world during the thirteenth century in the south of France. He claimed to receive instruction to spread the rosary prayers throughout the world in a vision from Mary the Mother of Jesus. The rosary prayers invoked Mary as an intercessor between God and the believer, and were said to confer many spiritual benefits on the individual. In Catholicism, death was one of many occasions on which to pray the rosary.
The rosary service takes place on the evening before a Catholic funeral, during which family members keep vigil, usually in close proximity to an open casket. The vigil, often called a "wake" in the U.S., provides family members with an opportunity to celebrate the life of the deceased as they receive friends and loved ones. The vigil traditionally takes place in the mourners' home. Some vigils today take place in a funeral home. Churches are also acceptable locations.
What to Do
A rosary service differs from service to service. It always begins, however, with reciting ten decades (or beads) of Hail Mary while thinking about the Glorious Mysteries. Repeat 10 times: "Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death." After this, consult your prayer book, and recite the prayers indicated by the service leader.
What to Bring
You may not know whether or not a rosary service will take place when you attend the vigil. If you have one, bring a rosary so as to be prepared in the event of a rosary service. Also bring a book that includes the traditional Catholic rosary prayers, with appropriate passages marked in case you forget or do not know the words.
Who Can Participate
Unlike the communion sacrament, which is open only to Catholics, anyone can participate in a rosary funeral service. Even a priest need not attend. Christians of any denomination, as well as non-Christians, are welcome to take part. Whether or not to participate, then, is an individual decision. If you are unfamiliar with Catholic tradition but still wish to participate, learn the relevant prayers and procedures ahead of time so as not to call attention to yourself.
After the Rosary Service
Remain quiet. Approach the family to pay your respects by briefly expressing the impact the deceased had on your life or on someone close to you. Do not belabor the point or give excessive detail. Simply communicate what the deceased person meant to you. The vigil celebrates the life of the deceased, so avoid questions or commentary about suffering or manner of death. Never utter jokes or speak loudly. Before leaving, proceed to the casket; if you pray, say a brief silent prayer before the open casket.
- Tradition in Action: Catholic Funeral Etiquette: Part I
- Fish Eaters: Burying the Dead: Catholic Funerals
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- U.S. Rosary: What Happened to the Rosary at Wakes?
- Houston Funeral Home Flowers: Funeral Flowers Frequently Asked Questions
- New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: The Rosary
- The Dominican Province of St. Joseph: The History of St. Dominic
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