This current series of ti morceaux is focusing on the Catholic Church’s funeral rites. In the last one, I mentioned the baptismal imagery which is so emphasized in celebrating funerals. Baptism typically is the beginning of life and faith, and a funeral celebrates a new beginning, into eternal life. As I put it, “Almost everyone has noted that at both celebrations – baptisms and funerals – washing with holy water, clothing with a white garment, and the burning of the Easter Candle are obvious parallels.”
But on this topic, having mentioned the white funeral pall that typically covers the coffin during the Catholic funeral liturgy, it’s probably a good time to note something that’s surprising to many: the Church does not permit a national flag to replace this in church. The Order of Christian Funerals at no. 38 states: “Only Christian symbols may rest on or be placed near the coffin during the funeral liturgy. Any other symbols, for example, national flags, or flags or insignia of associations, have no place in the funeral liturgy.” No. 132 repeats: “Any national flags or the flags or insignia of associations to which the deceased belonged are to be removed from the coffin at the entrance to the church. They may be replaced after the coffin has been taken from the church.”
This practice is derived from the fact that, in faith and in death, we are all equal in the sight of God. We are followers of Jesus Christ first and foremost, and we do so within the community of Christ’s holy Church; any other affiliations, such as military service, union membership, political party, etc., cede to our identity as Christians.
When you stop to think about it, this also is the most prudent course. We never want to politicize the Church or its prayer, appearing to endorse a particular secular relationship or view. Imagine the scandal if old Nazi or Soviet, or present-day communist Chinese flags were allowed! Certainly, too, there are aspects even in “free” societies that can’t be supported (think of legalized abortion in the USA, Canada, and other “enlightened” Western lands!). Rather than leaving this sometimes difficult choice to national or local canon laws, liturgical law provides that funeral symbols will identify the deceased as Christian, period.