Christianity has nearly 2 billion followers and they are divided into three major groups including the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Protestantism itself is made up of many different denominations.
Christianity grew out of Judaism. A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ who is believed to be the Messiah predicted in the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament). While there is wide variation on many Christian teachings, virtually all groups agree that people are redeemed of their sins, which is broadly interpreted as rebellion against God, by a belief in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus.
An Overview of Beliefs
Roman Catholics share virtually all the New Testament beliefs but they attach special significance to the right of Baptism and the Eucharist. They believe that Baptism is a sacrament that marks for the entry into the Christian life and at the Eucharist (known as Communion and other Christian groups) is a sacrament that enables followers to participate metaphorically in Christ's death and resurrection. Other Catholic sacraments include Confession, Holy Orders, Marriage, Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick.
Roman Catholics are different than most other Christians because they place an emphasis on the adoration of Mary the mother of Jesus and by basing their doctrines on creeds, councils and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in addition to what the Bible teaches.
Views on Death and the After-Life
Like most other Christian groups, Roman Catholics believe that when a person dies the soul leaves the body, which decomposes, and the soul goes on to judgment. Most Christian groups believe that those who died, "in Christ," will go to heaven and those who have committed unforgiven sin will end in hell. Roman Catholics add another level to the afterlife, called Purgatory, and it and intermediary place where imperfect Christians have an opportunity to be forgiven. Roman Catholics believe that the dead remain in Purgatory until they have been purified enough to enter heaven.
Mourning and Funeral Rites
Roman Catholics conduct a funeral Mass for the departed and often have a graveside service as well. Roman Catholics have long taught that people should be buried in graves to await the expected resurrection of the body. It wasn't until 1963, at the second Vatican Council, that cremation was allowed. Many older Catholics will insist on a traditional burial, but many younger Catholics are open to cremation.
People of all faiths are welcome at Catholic funerals, and you should introduce yourself to the family if you only knew the deceased. Very often at Catholic funerals the casket is open and people approach it to view the deceased. It is customary to say a silent prayer on behalf of the deceased if you so desire. A Catholic funeral is normally somewhat formal, but at a wake the atmosphere is different as people often eat, drink and share fond memories of the departed.
How to Express your Condolences
Among Catholics,floral arrangements or monetary donations to masses in memory of the departed person are considered to be appropriate. Otherwise, expressions of condolence are the same as with anyone. Normally people express their sense of loss with the spouse or family members, and often share a few fond memories of the departed if appropriate. If you cannot express your condolences in person, then write a letter or send an e-mail. Normally you will want to express your condolences within a week or two of the death, or if later, when you first learn of it.
Important note: The statements made about beliefs and rites are general in nature and may vary by sect, denomination, country or ethnic group. The information provided here is intended as an overview, and if you have questions about specific matters you should contact the clergy or other person conducting the funeral service. If you read anything in this section that differs from the beliefs in your tradition, please contact usso we can update this page.