I recently saw at a funeral the practice of throwing handfuls of dirt onto a deceased’s casket. What is the history of the practice and its meaning?
They do that in the parish where I presently live. I’ve always interpreted that as a ceremonial nod to the Bible calling us to acts of mercy and charity such as burying the dead.
It’s better than at my home parish where they don’t even accompany the casket to the cemetery – all the final prayers are said at the back of the church and the family doesn’t even get to see the deceased buried.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust!
It’s a reminder of our own mortality, it’s a good bye to the person we lost, it’s an act of “burying the dead,” and it’s a realistic view of our life on earth.
When I buried my mother in 2001, after the priest said the prayers and blessed the casket, we were told by the funeral director that it was time to leave. When I objected that we wanted to stay until the casket was lowered into the grave, he told me “we don’t do that anymore”. I let him know that either we stayed, or we would delay payment. Well, it took a while for them to get the grave diggers to lower the casket and then when I asked for earth to throw on the casket he gave me a funny look and found a box of sand in the trunk of his car. Afterwards he said no one has done that here in years…I told him I guess you don’t bury many Poles…
So much for the “modern”, expensive American way of death!
Why don’t they get to accompany the deceased to the cemetery? Wow, this would cause an outcry around here, but about a decade ago we found out that a local crematorium wasn’t burning the bodies, just dumping them in the woods and handing campfire ash out and pocketing the money. Now, we scrutinize the practices of those servicing the dead with a harsh lens.
I am sorry to hear that. I thought that was the Catholic Church"s teaching of burying our dead, and encouraging prayer for our dead by having a grave site to go to. Not even going to the grave site on the day of the funeral does not encourage us to ever go there.
My parish, the priest goes to the grave site after the funeral, and on All Soul’s Day says an outdoor Mass at the cemetary, this seems to be more in keeping with the mind of the universal Church.
Jewish funerals typically end with everyOne symbolically helping to bury the persOn also; so perhaps the history is very old . A rabbi once explained it to me as such: to perform a true act of charity, one must do the act expecting absolutely nothing in return. SInce it is impossible for the dead to do anything to repay us, burying the dead is one of the greatest acts of charity there is. I liked the logic a lot
My brother’s mother in law died a few years ago. She wasn’t a Catholic, but one of her specific requests for her funeral was that it wasn’t over until she’s buried. So, after a funeral service at a chapel, and a drive to the cemetery, there was a graveside service. At the end of the graveside service, the minister left. We stayed. The funeral director lowered the casket. Family members tossed a few flowers into the grave. I don’t remember if anyone threw a little dirt. The funeral director removed his equipment. The backhoe operator filled the grave with dirt as we watched. Finally the soil was evened off at the top. The backhoe operator left. We said a little prayer. Only then was it finished, and it complied with her wishes.
From what I saw when Mom died, the pallbearers and the funeral director were the only people who went to the cemetery. The family was certainly NOT encouraged to go, in fact, I was prevented from going. I wasn’t going to start a fight with the funeral director and the priest with Dad there, in distress, but it was totally against what I had experienced for the previous 20+ years and it made me angry, really. It felt like the ceremony was left hanging without the graveside committal.
When Dad died 19 years later, that wasn’t a concern. He died during the winter and there are no burials then in the area where I come from. Bodies are stored in the crypt and buried after a special Mass in the spring.
I’ve never been present at a funeral where the coffin was not above ground level when everyone was just expected to leave.
Even the one funeral (latino) where everyone put dirt on the coffin happened before the coffin was lowered.
I’m very surprised by those who say that you don’t accompany the deceased to the grave site.
When burying all of my relatives who have passed, there was always the wake, then the next morning again meeting at the funeral home, then the casket and procession for funeral services at the church, then everyone went to the cemetery ~ including the Priest, where the funeral continued and ended. We would leave prior to the casket being lowered ~ but the immediate family members would stay while it was done.
I’ve attended non-Catholic burials as well that were very similar, with the exception going to the church in the morning. However, usually the pastor of the family member who was deceased would attend the funeral home for prayers and accompany to the grave site for additional prayers.
Although in this town everyone goes to the cemetery for the final committal and the actual burial, which is often done by family members, there is no tradition of a procession from the funeral home to the church.
It hadn’t even been the tradition to have the prayers before the closing of the casket at the funeral home, although we have changed that in the last year. But usually the funeral is at 2 p.m. and the final visit at the funeral home is the evening before. The body is brought to the church at least an hour before the funeral and until recently the ‘reception of the body’ was done at that time with only the priest and the funeral director present – when you came to the church, the coffin was at the back with the pall on it already.
Our last pastor, in order to accommodate this town’s tradition of a eulogy at all funerals, changed the order in which things were done. The coffin is brought to the front, everyone sits, the eulogy is given and then the reception of the body is done, the family places the pall and the Mass continues as usual.
A brief detour… my husband was to play his bagpipes at an evangelical funeral, deep in the hills in rural Alabama. We arrived well ahead of time, having driven the previous day to locate the graveyard. Certain that we were at the right place, were alarmed to see NO open grave.
At the time the funeral procession arrived, hearse, family, and mourners, the grave was still unopened. In their time of grief, no one arranged for the grave to be dug.
So, here we are, miles from any town, no open grave, and a body to bury, and a grieving family.
The young men, many in farming pickup trucks, gathered their shovels and rakes, and commenced to dig the grave. It was early summer, they, in their white shirts with sleeves rolled up, dug into that red Alabama clay. After a bit, the grave was ready.
The funeral was so peaceful, the prayers and remembrances heartfelt. Hymns sung a capella, echoing among the hills. The casket was lowered into the grave, and the young men, in their white shirts rolled up their sleeves again, covered the casket, family and friends tossing handfuls of dirt as they paid their last respects.
I thought, reflecting, that this was like it was done in the “old” days. It was a good day.
I was at the funeral of my father in law. He was a carribean genltleman living in London.
He was not Catholic, but his wife and daughter are.
The funeral was at the Catholic Church, followed by a burial at the city cemetery. - By prior arrangement (by my wife’s sister) the soil from the grave was kept available, and shovels were also avaialble.
During the committal the priest symbolically throws some dirt onto the coffin, after it was lowered. after that all the men grabbed a shovel and manually filled the grave. (some of the soil was in a dumper, which might have been tipped in to speed things up my memory is not clear on that point)
What surprised me, attending the first funeral since I left Ireland was the differences:
- the body was never brought to the home. it was treated as a totally alien idea.
- there was therefore no procession to the church. - it was brought from the funeral parlour to the church on the day.
- the body did not stay overnight in the church! - in Ireland that would be unheard-of.
In Ireland the body would normally be laid out at home for at least one night - the traditional time for a wake (in England they seem to think a “wake” is the reception after a funeral)
It would then be carried - on foot if close enough- to the local parish church the night before the funeral - typically around 5 pm - known as “The removal of the remains” occasionally this was on the morning of the funeral.
If the persons house could not accommodate having the body laid out it would normally be kept at the church for at least 24 hours. - sometimes across a weekend. My parish church removed benches from in front of one of the side chapels as this happened more often - setting up effectively a “chapel of rest”
The rubrics - as I understand it - specifically require that a catholic funeral should have - as a minimum - a funeral at the church - followed by a committal at the graveside or crematorium.
As a very minimum I feel the coffin should be lowered into the grave and a few handfuls of soil put over it. The reasons for not doing this are probably due to not wanting or not having available the labourers who’s job it is to lower the coffin and fill the grave.
“We don’t do that anymore…” :rolleyes:
I think it’s a great practice, and I have done it at many funerals. I think of it as “participating” in the burial by helping to cover the body with the earth…
I recently learned this at a Jewish funeral myself and I think it is beautiful for its symbolism and its power of edification.
When my father passed away three years ago, he had a military funeral with full honors and was buried in a national cemetery (Ft. Bliss).
We were fortunate that the priest who presided over everything from the rosary service the night before to the service at the cemetery was a friend of the family and a military chaplain (retired full colonel) since he knew when Catholic tradition trumped military tradition (for instance, I’d been to a few funeral Masses for deceased veterans where the casket remained draped in the American flag during the Mass… it should have the white pall over it, symbolizing the deceased’s baptism.)
At the cemetery, the service is held in a shelter where the committal prayers are said, the flag is folded and presented to the family, the salute is fired, and “Taps” is played. There is no graveside service, per se, but we all placed a single rose on my dad’s casket before we left. I assume it’s because of the difficulty of getting people around the gravesite without trampling the grass or standing on other graves that they don’t have the graveside service graveside. The earthmover was parked at a discreet distance.
In our case, having an open grave would have been extremely upsetting to our mother because my older sister had predeceased us all and when my parents had her buried at the cemetery (she had this privilege as a military dependent), my father requested a grave that would accommodate both him and my mother at a future date. All in all, it was done with extreme dignity and respect, just what my father would have wanted and deserved.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is my father-in-law’s funeral. My BIL has a large section of his property (we live in a rural area, bordering on BLM land) fenced off as our family plot, provided we are all cremated (state law). My husband’s grandfather, my BIL’s wife, and my FIL are now all buried there. One of my BILs is a priest and, after the funeral Mass, after all the guests had departed, the family gathered in the family plot where one of the men had dug the grave. After the prayers of committal, my MIL, with the help of her sons, placed Dad’s ashes in the grave and shoveled in the first few shovelfuls of dirt. Then each child and the older grandchildren each placed a shovelful in the grave, and my oldest BIL finished filling it in. Again, it was done with dignity and respect, just what my father-in-law would have wanted and deserved.