The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception located on The Catholic University of America campus in Washington, D.C.

The 'Splainer: What to expect at Scalia's Catholic funeral

A Burial At Ornans is a mid-19th century painting Gustave Courbet. PD-Art.

"A Burial At Ornans" is a mid-19th century painting Gustave Courbet. PD-Art.

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's funeral will be held Saturday (Feb. 20) at 11 a.m. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the U.S. What can we expect from a Catholic funeral? Will there be a eulogy? A Mass? Let us 'Splain . . . .

Q: What does a Catholic funeral consist of?

A: A Catholic funeral has three parts, which generally take place over at least two days. First comes the "Vigil for the Deceased," where friends and family gather before the funeral and burial to pray, offer condolences and recite as a group at least one decade, or section, of the rosary. In Catholicism, this is the time for a eulogy or other speeches about the deceased. Scalia's vigil is not public. Instead, the public can view his body as it lies in repose at the Supreme Court on Friday.

A day or two later comes the funeral Mass, among the most sacred rites of Catholicism. It is not a memorial or celebratory service, but is a service of worship with the focus on God and his acceptance of the deceased. It always takes place in a church. More on the funeral Mass later.

Last comes the "Rite of Committal," held at the burial site. Catholics believe in a bodily resurrection, so they frown on cremation. Scalia's committal will be private. It will likely be a time of prayer and blessing for both the deceased and his family and mourners. Of the Rite of Committal, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "the deceased passes with the farewell prayers of the community of believers into the welcoming company of those who need faith no longer, but see God face-to-face."

Q: What will happen at Scalia's actual funeral?

A: The American flag that will drape Scalia's coffin during its lying in state at the Supreme Court will be removed before the casket enters the shrine. A priest will meet the coffin at the front door and sprinkle it with holy water. It will then be draped in a white cloth, or "funeral pall," intended to invoke the purity symbolized by the white garment of baptism. As the coffin is carried to the front of the church, a friend or family member may carry a crucifix, a Bible or a rosary in the procession and place them on top of the coffin.

Look for the priest to wear a vestment with a color that symbolizes hope -- violet or white are likely. Scalia will be commended to the mercy of God and everyone will be asked to pray for him and his family. There will be one or two Bible readings -- extrabiblical readings are not allowed. Music is very important in a Catholic funeral, and Scalia was a great fan of sacred music. Look for the selections to reflect his favorites, but stay within the selections approved by the church. "Ave Maria," by Bach or Schubert, is a good bet.

During the funeral, the priest will deliver a homily, or short sermon. He will celebrate the Eucharist -- the breaking of the sacramental bread and the pouring of the sacramental wine performed by Jesus at the Last Supper. Only baptized Catholics may join the priest in the Eucharist -- non-Catholics may be invited forward for a blessing of some kind. There will not be a "kiss of peace" -- a greeting among parishioners that is part of a regular Mass. As the coffin proceeds out of the church, the funeral pall may be removed and the American flag can then take its place.

Q: What symbols and rituals are likely to be seen at Scalia's funeral?

A: Some of the most interesting symbols and rituals at Scalia's funeral are likely to be displayed while he lies in repose in the Supreme Court. His pallbearers -- those who carry his coffin up the steps of the Court Friday morning -- are likely to be his former law clerks. No word yet if they will be the same pallbearers at the basilica on Saturday. Inside the court, his coffin will likely rest on the Lincoln catafalque -- the platform that held President Abraham Lincoln's coffin as he rested in state in the Capitol. Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, Salmon Chase, Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, Warren Burger and William Brennan all received the same honor.

Q: The big question: Will there be a eulogy during Scalia's funeral? Gov. Mario Cuomo's Catholic funeral in 2015 contained a 40-minute eulogy by his son.

A: Wait and see. The official Catholic guidelines, published in 1989, are this: “At funeral Masses there should usually be a short homily, but to the exclusion of a funeral eulogy of any kind.” But there's a loophole: “A member or friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins.”

Whether an admirer of the sharp jurist, who loved to have the last word, will take advantage of this loophole remains to be seen.


(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS)


  1. Justice Scalia was devoted to the Traditional Latin (Tridentine Rite) Mass, and his son, Father Scalia, who will be the celebrant (if news reports are accurate), instituted that Mass in a number of parished in the Diocese of Arlington. That being the case, is it likely that the Requiem Mass will be in the Tridentine Rite?

  2. I’m not sure that you can say that cremation is “frowned” on any longer–at least not in all dioceses. It certainly is not common, but we Catholics understand that most of us are going to end up as dust eventually, and that does not stand in the way of a resurrected body. Having the body present is, for many, a helpful way to say goodbye, but “de gustibus”.

  3. This is not a very helpful article. First, as Mario states above, it is very likely that the Mass could be a Requiem from what has been known as the Tridentine Rite. I have the same understanding of the situation as he does. If this is the case the priest will wear black. There also would be no white covering over the casket. The flag could remain on the casket, or it could be removed for the Mass. There should also be six amber colored candles surrounding the casket.

    If they do the ordinary form of the Mass in English I would imagine the priest will wear white as that is the custom, for the most part, in the US. It is the custom here in the Washington Archdiocese.

    Every funeral Mass I have ever been to in the ordinary form has the Sign of Peace, but not the Tridentine. That does not mean it has to be included, just that it is in general. Given the traditionalist proclivities of the Scalias it would not surprise me if it is left out should the Mass be in the ordinary…

  4. The article omitted one thing…FOOD !!!

    I went to a RC funeral once and there was plenty of food, little sandwiches, cookies, finger-food, coffee, tea, pastries, even beef bouillon..

  5. Not true. To bury the dead is a corporal work of mercy. Cremation disallows this from happening. It is pagan in origin and doesn’t give due respect to the natural decaying process of God’s creation

  6. Most theologians would not say the “last supper” was the same thing as a liturgical “Eucharist,” as this article implies. Most liturgical scholars say the “last supper” historically probably didn’t happen.

  7. Ave Maria in Eng and Latin, composed by Flor Peeters,
    Ave Maria in Latin, composed by Vito Frazzi,
    Ave Maria in Latin, composed by Johann Algra,
    Ave Maria in Latin, Gregorian Chant, Simple and more complex Tones.

    Neither Bach, nor Gounod, nor Schubert ever composed an Ave Maria…. Those songs and melodies titled as such were arrangements of the words of the Ave Maria, set to tunes that originally were love songs or popular songs, or “other”.

    From a former liturgical musician, now retired.

    I’m sure there are many more good new liturgical versions of the Ave Maria more in line with Opus Dei criteria than the hackneyed Gounod and Schubert arrangements.
    SONG TO THE LORD, USCCB MUSIC IN DIVINE WORSHIP, the last section starting at para. 244, subtitled ORDER OF CHRISTIAN FUNERALS tells how to use music in the Catholic Funeral Services, including vigils and services at the grave site.

  8. TYPO

    (I blame my iPad keyboard)

  9. Depends on the type of Catholic. I have been to Italian, Philippino and Hispanic wakes where the food was phenomenal. I have been to Irish ones where one drinks in order to forget the awful catering.

  10. I have never understood what is inherently “holier” or “more righteous” about putrefactive decomposition, as against reducing a corpse to ashes — especially since nowadays, with grave-liners and metal caskets, the corpse cannot return to the earth.

    If anyone can enlighten me, I would welcome the information.

  11. The author notes that only baptized Catholics may receive Holy Communion. This is not entirely accurate. The author is correct in noting that only Roman Catholics and those who are in communion with the faith are invited to receive communion, but the sacrament of Baptism does not entitle one to receive Communion. The Sacrament of First Communion or Holy Eucharist does. There are seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism. It is safe to day that all Catholics who have received the Sacrament of Holy Communion have been baptized, but all baptized Catholics have not necessarily received the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

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