Candles at Funerals
Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy
Never was the “Summer of All Souls” more beautiful than on the Day of the Dead itself, when our two old friends returned from the suburban cemetery where they had assisted at the touching ceremonies of “The Dirge,” sung by the cathedral choir at the foot of the great crucifix which marked the last resting place of so many of their sacerdotal brethren. The Vicar General himself had officiated, and a goodly gathering of the Faithful had shed their tears on the hallowed ground which enshrined their dead, for this open-air service was an old usage (since we may not say “Custom”) of the See City, and many made the visit to God’s Acre after the Solemn Masses in the various churches.
For a while the two old priests were silent, as the ancient flivver ran, with unaccustomed smoothness, through one of the large city parks. A forced halt at an intersecting road, however, gave the Liturgiologist time to catch his breath, and to expel it in some such words as these:
“As an Antiquary, you may perhaps be able to tell me how the utterly absurd and lacking-in-authority ceremony of the altar boys carrying unlighted candles at funeral services came to be so general.”
“More in your line than mine,” replied the elder priest. “In the olden days, in which I must confess I’m more interested than I am in our own, so far from putting out candles they lit as many as they could, and the hearses got their name because of the spikes with which they were studded and upon which candles burned.”
“Interesting, but not important,” was the Liturgiologist’s tart comment, by which his friend knew that he was sufficiently moved by something other than the dangers of flivver travel. “I often see it—the altar boys standing at the Gospel in a Solemn Mass of Requiem, or with the crossbearer during the Dirge afterwards, with unlighted candles in their hands. No authority for it, none whatever!”
“Perhaps the clergy have misinterpreted the direction for the ceremonies of the Gospel, which directs that the servers assist without their candles,” was the Antiquary’s mild way of pouring oil on the flames of his companion’s wrath.
Candles being used during Funeral Mass of Pope Pius XII
Another view of Pius XII's casket surrounded by funerary candles
A silver and black toned candlesticks for Requiem High Masses with unbleached candles
A drawing of how to arrange six catafalque candles around a casket
“Perfectly plain directions!” barked the Liturgiologist. “The Ritus Celebrandi, cap XIII, sec 2 distinctly says ‘non tenentur luminaria ad Evangelium, nee portatur incensum, sed duo tantum Acolythi sine candelabris stant,’ etc. And again, in section 4 where the directions for the Dirge, or Absolution of the Body are given, ‘duos Acolythos cum candelabris accensis—sicut in Processionibus.’ Yet time and again one sees the exact opposite to what the Church requires. Topsy-turvy ceremonial again, and precious little excuse for it.”
“You have animadverted on this point have you not?” asked the Antiquary.
“Not exactly this point,” was the reply, “I did write something about the forbidden veiling of candlesticks at a Requiem, while the unbleached candles recommended by most of the liturgical writers are conspicuous by their absence. But this is another matter, and the only excuse for it is carelessness.”
“Fond of yourself, aren’t you!” sneered the Antiquary.
“Very,” asserted the Liturgiologist, without batting an eye. “If I thought for one moment that all my hints for the correcting of ceremonial inaccuracies would be carried out, I’d write more of them! But I’m thankful to know that at least one good Pastor has folded away the black tabernacle veil which used to (dis) grace his altar on All Souls’ Day and at funerals, and has burned up the dust-covers that formerly adorned the candlesticks on such occasions. Maybe somebody will encourage the candlemakers to offer unbleached wax again tho that’s a minor point, and we mustn’t be too meticulous. I’d like to go to my own funeral thinking that my poor words might have made the sacred obsequies less of a liturgical abomination. There’s the point about the hearse candles—”
“Ah yes! “broke in the Antiquary. “Very interesting, that word 'hearse'. A Tenebrae hearse you know, preserves the shape of the harrow from which its name is derived. Funeral hearse, bristling with candles—”
“If you would not interrupt, dear Father, with ecstatic ravings on philological matters,” said the Liturgiologist, in a voice of deadly calmness, “you would observe that we are already three blocks beyond the place where we should have turned, and also give me a chance to explain about the present-day usage in regard to candles around the catafalque.”
“Ad primum, they’re moving a house in Fourth Street, and we couldn’t get through anyway. Go on, tell me how many candles are required in these degenerate and economical days.” The Antiquary swung the little car off the boulevard with a vicious jerk of the wheel.
“Usually six,” gasped the Liturgiologist, frantically grabbing at the side-curtain to keep himself from catapulting into the gutter. “No number prescribed. May be more, may be less. But there’s no authority for having a standing crucifix at the head of the coffin in church. If there’s no boy available to carry the processional cross no attempt should be made to replace it by another cross on a table or stand. All right in the house: not in the church.”
“Apropos of the processional cross, what about the custom of carrying a small crucifix instead at the funeral of a child,” asked the Antiquary, as he slowed down for the driveway.
“At the funeral of an Infant, v. g. any baptized person under seven years of age, the processional cross is borne without its shaft. The liturgical books make a special point of this. Conveniently, a small hand cross is carried, but the regular processional cross of the parish should be made so that its upper part may be detached. But, here again we come up against the cart-before-the-horse method, and see priests going around the coffins of infants with the incense, which they are not supposed to do, while an altar boy carries the processional cross, staff and all. Of course, the celebrant sprinkles the body of an infant with Holy Water, but he should not go around it nor incense it unless the priest performs in the church the ceremonies prescribed for the grave.”
1 A play of words on metropolitan see.
2 An old term for a cemetery.
3 This reference is directly from the Missale Romanum.
4 [The acolytes] "do not carry lights for the Gospel, nor is incense carried, but only two Acolytes without candles stand, etc."
5 "...two Acolytes with candles go forth—as in a procession."
6 It is strictly forbidden to veil the tabernacle in black, as Christ lives.
7 Latin for "to the first (point)".
8 Cars in the 1920’s often had side curtains for the back seat windows, not only to give privacy to the occupants (as well as protect them from road dust) but also to provide some insulation against the cold in the unheated car.
9 Latin for "correct".