Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I was brought up to believe that a Catholic must be buried facing the east. Is that no longer true, and was it a part of the same law which said that the altar in a Catholic church must face the east? (Bridgeton. N.J.)

A. There is no requirement in church law regarding the position of burial. The only thing that comes close is a reference in the Roman Ritual of 1950 (no longer in effect) that stated that at the funeral Mass the coffin was to be placed so that the feet of the deceased should point toward the main altar.

Presuming the church had been constructed so that a priest celebrating Mass would face the east, the deceased at the funeral would face in that same direction.

Although there was no canonical requirement, it was in fact customary for people to be buried facing the east, reflecting the traditional Christian belief that, at the end time, Jesus would return from the east. (An even earlier pagan tradition had the deceased buried facing the east because it was where the sun rose.)

There is no fixed rule, and I know of some cemeteries where a large plot might have a cross in the middle with family members buried in a circular fashion, their heads nearest the cross.

Correctly, you suggest that the same values guided the traditional placing of a church’s main altar, so that the priest celebrating Mass could face the east. This evoked the Christian expectation as to Christ’s return. (See Mt 24:27: “For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”)

It also reflected the Jewish tradition, where the synagogue’s congregation at worship looks together toward Jerusalem.

Most churches today celebrate Mass with the priest facing the people, across the altar. This highlights the communal dimension of the Eucharist as a meal of believers, while Mass offered with both the priest and congregation facing east emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.

Q. What does the church teach regarding sex in marriage during later adult years? My wife insists that since we are no longer capable of having children (Abraham and Sarah we are not), sex is something that should no longer be an important part of our marriage.

But I believe that intimacy is important at any age for a couple to keep a strong and healthy marriage intact. Obviously, much depends on the agreement of both spouses, but could you enlighten me on the church’s view? (Davenport, Iowa)

A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks in No. 2363 of the “twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life.” When the procreative aspect is no longer possible (you’re right: Abraham at 100 and Sarah at 90 would have to be considered as outliers), the unitive aspect remains.

Sexual intimacy can be an important part of that loving union, even into old age. The church recognizes this, endorses it and encourages it. True, the nature of that intimacy and its frequency depend on the agreement of the couple; often, a frank sharing of feelings with a physician or counselor (especially one who shares your moral outlook) can help in this regard.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.