From the Italian catafalco, derivation of which is uncertain, a catafalque is a wooden or steel structure that was historically used particularly for the absolution after requiem masses. It designated (1) a framework supporting the coffin at funerals when the corpse is physically present; or (2) more commonly the structure used to simulate the presence of a corpse, a practice of questionable meaningfulness. Originally the catafalque was nothing but the bier or support for the corpse. The use of a catafalque to represent an absent body seems to have originated later with the introduction of absolutions for the dead. Gradually the structure was increased in size, and frequently it was covered with a baldachin so that it came to assume monumental proportions when used for persons of high rank. In some countries the size of the catafalque was commensurate with the deceased's rank and wealth. The place for the catafalque was before the altar outside the sanctuary. It was covered with a black cloth or pall (except for little children for whom white is used), and surrounded by candles.
The liturgical reforms of Vatican II rendered the catafalque obsolete in many places. While it was never expressly forbidden, the desire for authenticity in liturgical celebration and the authoritative suggestion that absolution be given only in the actual presence of the corpse in the reformed funeral rites brought about its demise.
Bibliography: Notitiae 7–8 (1965). p. bayant, "Le Mobilier d'Église," Liturgia, ed. r. aigrain (Paris 1930) 256–257. j. b.
o'connell, Church Building and Furnishing (South Bend, Ind.1955) 239–242. g. malherbe, "Le Castrum Doloris ou catafalque des services funèbres" Paroisse et Liturgie 33 (1951) 116–121. j. b. o'connell, The Celebration of Mass (new ed. Milwaukee 1956) 634–636.