Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reader Question: Constructing the Catafalque

A priestly reader sent in the following question:

I have been offering Mass in the usus antiquior only since last September.

My question is: how is one to construct a catafalque for the Absolution after Mass on All Souls?

It is a good question that others may likewise wonder about, and it is nice to see this matter being prepared for. With All Souls Day only 9 weeks away, it is certainly not too soon.

A catafalque is of course what is used for the absolution of the dead without a body present. Here are two examples:


Catafalque for All Souls at St. Francis de Sales Oratory, St. Louis. (Image courtesy of Mark Scott Abeln)


Catafalque setup at Ss. Trinita in Rome. (Image courtesy of John Sonnen)


Before discussing the catafalque itself, a few other notes are in order.

The first point is that one typically sees six candles (though this number does not seem to be formally so defined by the rubrics) and candlesticks used; three on each side of the catafalque, set on the ground.

These candles are of unbleached beeswax. (One will not uncommonly see bleached candles used also today for this purpose, but I would certainly like to make the appeal to our pastors -- or for that matter to parish donors, though please consult your parish priest first to make sure you purchase candles of the right size and type -- to make the investment and purchase some unbleached beeswax candles to use for the occasion of Masses for the Dead. Not only is this best in accord with the rubrics, they, like black as a liturgical colour, lend to somber tone of Masses for the Dead. Unbleached beeswax candles would be used both around the coffin/catafalque, and also for the candles on the altar as well. They might also be used for the candles carried by the acolytes.)

One will also need a black pall.

The second point I should note is that a catafalque itself is not absolutely required; one may instead simply spread a black cloth or pall on the ground where the coffin or the catafalque would be. (Evidently though, there is something to be said for the coffin-like symbolism of the catafalque.)

Now, as for the catafalque itself, here is how O'Connell describes it in The Celebration of Mass:
A wooden or steel structure, sometimes surmounted by a casket covered by a pall which represents the coffin with the body of the deceased when it is not present.

In the photographs above, one sees both described arrangements.

So far as I can see then, the catafalque is simply constructed of a bier (a raised rectangular wooden box or metal stand of dimensions that would hold an adult sized coffin) which is then covered by the black pall, or the same, further with a type of symbolic coffin further placed upon it, similarly covered.

Perhaps some of our readers would share what their parishes do in this regard. If anyone has anything to add, please do jump in in the comments.

To read more on these rites and ceremonies in the context of the usus antiquior, see the Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described (Fortescue, O'Connell, Reid) and The Celebration of Mass (J.B. O'Connell).



(Note the unbleached candles on the altar)


I would also take this moment to give recommendation to priests using black vestments and unbleached beeswax candles for All Souls Day Masses in the context of the modern Roman liturgy.

Now is a good time to source out these things.