The black and white of funerals

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 15, 2019

A variety of vestment colors appropriate for last Mass

When the priest arrives to celebrate your funeral Mass, what color vestments do you want him to wear?

If you automatically said “white,” you’ve attended many Catholic funerals since the liturgical changes in the 1970s following the Second Vatican Council. Most priests today celebrate funeral Masses in white vestments, the liturgical color of resurrection.

However, many people do not know that the priest also has the option of wearing purple

A black vestment from the collection of the Green Bay Diocesan Museum at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

or black.

In the English translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2011), we find this: “The color violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead. Besides the color violet, the colors white or black may be used at funeral services and at other Offices and Masses for the Dead in the Dioceses of the United States of America” (n. 346).

The color violet

The color violet (purple), as noted above, is the color of Advent, the season of anticipation and preparation, and of Lent, the season of repentance. Black is the color of repentance (think ashes and sackcloth) and mourning. Purple is the color of kings and thus of Christ. It is meant to remind us of the events of salvation history, including the anticipation of Christ’s coming and the sorrow of his Passion.

White was most likely the very first color used for vestments in the church. Later, the colors of red, green and black were added. Finally, the violet shades were introduced. (Purple dye was very expensive and rare until relatively recently.)

White is the color of Christ in glory, as well as his saints. This is why we use white vestments for Easter and for All Saints Day, among other occasions, especially feast days of Christ. White at funerals came into use after Vatican II. Prior to that, and still today in the Extraordinary form of the Mass (the Traditional Latin Mass), black was the color priests wore for funerals.

Pray for the dead

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, a writer at newtheologicalmovement.blogspot, noted in 2012, that using black vestments at a funeral “helps to direct us to mourn not for ourselves but for the deceased. … The color reminds us to pray for the dead. The funeral Mass is not really about the family — though there are certainly many prayers for the consolation of those who mourn. Rather, the funeral Mass is primarily for him who has died: Nearly every prayer is for the forgiveness of his sin (i.e. of the temporal punishment of sin).”

Black, in modern Western culture, is the color of mourning. (Many historians note that ancient Romans wore black togas as a sign of mourning.) Even today, at most funerals, people will wear black, or perhaps gray as a form of black. It is a somber color.

Some younger priests, many of whom were not even born before the reforms of Vatican II, have started to wear black vestments for funerals.

“After Vatican II,” one explained to The Compass, “the emphasis became the hope for heaven and the promise of eternal life, the risen Christ, the joy of resurrection. The white vestments reflected hope of resurrection.”

“The challenge we have,” he added, “is that the general sense among Christian faithful is that everyone who dies goes to heaven.” And, he added, that is entirely up to God’s mercy and not to our judgment.

‘Quasi-canonization’

He said that this is what concerns many priests of his generation: they fear that many funerals have become “a quasi-canonization” of the deceased, with people forgetting the need we all have to pray for God’s mercy.

So, this priest added, “priests of my age and younger, use purple or black to acknowledge the sobriety of the funeral rite, acknowledge the mourning there.”

Several older priests, when queried by The Compass, admitted that they don’t even own a set of black vestments, though one who was ordained 53 years ago said that using black did make him remember “the need for purgation.”

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., ordained in 1973, wrote on this topic in 2014.

“The significance of black is self-evident,” he noted. “From a strictly human perspective, death is a time of mystery and fear as we depart this world and enter the realm of the netherworld. Death is a time of loss, as our bodies decay and our earthly pilgrimage with its hopes and dreams comes to an end. And death is often a time of heartrending emotions for loved ones who experience profound loneliness at the permanent loss of a family member or dear friend.”

Since there are these choices for vestment colors at the funeral Mass, priests who might want to use different colors of vestments will take a pastoral approach. This involves speaking with the family of the deceased before the funeral Mass, or with someone who is pre-planning a funeral, and explaining the colors’ significance. Then, if white is not used, purple or black can also offer a teaching moment during the Mass itself.

All Souls

The same is true about the vestments for All Souls Day (Nov. 2). Often they are white, but the use of black is also appropriate, since we are praying for the souls of the faithful departed on that day – and throughout all of November.

As Deacon Greg Kandra, a deacon of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a Catholic journalist, blogged in 2014, “In my 55 years, I’ve never seen black vestments worn for a funeral or for All Souls; I suspect that’s true for most Catholics of my generation. … As for All Souls: why not? Wearing black might be a ripe opportunity for the priest (or deacon) to catechize the faithful and explain the meaning of liturgical colors and remind them why they are important.”

 

Sources: newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com; The Rhode Island Catholic; The Deacon’s Bench at patheos.com; Catholic Encyclopedia; The Church Visible; and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal

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