Funeral vestment color in Madison, WI

This just in – I hear that Bishop Morlino of Madison, WI instructed his priests at a funeral this morning to wear purple or black vestments for funerals. General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the U.S. at no. 346 allows violet, white, or black (in that order) for funerals.

I suppose this might disappoint some, but I have some sympathy for the bishop’s instruction, liturgically speaking. (The political prudence of the decree at this point in time is another question.)

When Sacrosanctum concilium says at no. 81 that “the rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death,” I take this to refer to the entire paschal mystery including suffering, death, and resurrection. White is a bit one-sided and too “happy” for my sensitivities. I’m intrigued by the suggestion that we introduce the color gray (grey for some of you) for funerals, a sort of blending of white and black.

Anyone out there have more details on the Madison instructions?

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35 comments

  1. Count me as a skeptic on the monochrome approach. I could see an improvement being a white vestment with purple and black trim. It should be distinct from the white used for the Christmas and Easter seasons as well as “white feasts.”

    Purple would be my third choice–too many pragmatic clergy would slap their Advent/Lent vestment in there.

    I wonder if Bishop Morlino is suggesting purple or black for palls, too.

  2. And let’s sing the Dies Irae! What planet do you people populate? Does it really serve the people of God to wear black vestments? What do you communicate with that gesture other than that death is a passage into darkness and mystery. How does that correspond to the message of the Christian scriptures? Do you think Jesus really wants us right now to be focusing on what color funeral vestments to wear?

    1. Fr. Hallinan, we humans have a remarkable capacity to deal with multiple concerns. My guess is the Lord trusts his Bishops to lead their dioceses as they see fit. I’m sure Bp. Morlino won’t neglect other pastoral issues.

      I have instructed my children that, when my time comes, I would appreciate the priest wearing black vestments at my funeral.

      BTW, I never recall seeing the grieving family, nor any of the mourners, wearing white at a funeral, have you?

      I think black vestments just might remind folks that a time of purification is most likely in the offing for the deceased, and that prayers, not an automatic canonization, are urgently needed.

      1. I’ll suppose, then, you’ve never been to an African-American funeral. All of the mourners are usually dressed in white for, IMO, the obvious reason!

    2. Do you think Jesus really wants us right now to be focusing on what color funeral vestments to wear?

      Given that burying the dead is a corporate act of mercy, the answer just might be “yes”.

    3. “Does it really serve the people of God to wear black vestments?” Absolutely it does. Culturally, we’ve pushed the idea of death further and further from our minds. (People used to be laid out in living rooms…) A correct Christian understanding of death is that is a metaphysical absurdity which only exists because of sin. This awful reality has been redeemed because, on the gruesome hill of Calvary, Christ transformed it into part of the Paschal mystery. A mystery which includes a gap between death and Resurrection. “Resurrection in death” attempts at eschatology are gravely deficient.

      “Memento mori. Tempus fugit.”

      Furthermore, to quote the pastoral maxim which certain people beat like a drum: “Meet people where they are.” They are grieving and mourning and wearing black. I’d rather mourn with people at Calvary than to skip straight to Easter Sunday…

      1. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” is a question that met the women at the tomb on Easter morning, but it moved them past the tomb. By all means, meet folks where they are, in their grief, but do not leave them there!

        (For what it’s worth, please note that the speakers of that question in Luke 24 were not wearing black.)

    4. You can just count on it!
      There are those people who, when encountering something with which they object, will come up with the ‘do you really think this is what Jesus wants us to waste our time on’ argument. As if all the world’s hungry multitudes miraculously would be fed if only we didn’t bother ourselves with liturgical vesture, which is, really, a fitting topic to consider.
      I learned today that the 17-year-old son of a relative-in-law drowned. White expresses my faith and hope. Black expresses the reality of what happened and how I feel about it. How we sort these out is not a waste of time. It seems to me that Jesus would share our concern.

  3. It would be most interesting if Bp Morlino failed to specifically address the funerals of young (baptized) children….

    (MInd you, I am generally fond of violet trimmed with white for funerals (black no longer has the purchase on grief it once had, but has a more dominant meaning of smart snazzy dress). With the violet for Advent now also connoting a sense of subdued expectation of the Lord’s coming (not only at the Nativity, but in his other comings….), this seems to merit a tie-in to funerals.)

    1. I lived next to a funeral home for about fifteen years and black was certainly the color that dominated the peoples’ clothing. The next runner-up would be anything dark or subdued generally. I’d bet the priest is typically the only one wearing white at most funerals.

      Ultimately, I think the vestment color should be up to the family if they are having an OF funeral because it gives three options. It shouldn’t be up to the special preference of the priest like most options in the OF are.

  4. I think the selection of vestments should be in accord with the family’s wish. But then, I think that funerals are an occasion to pray for a safe journey for those who have passed, not an opportunity to catechize those in attendance! I think far more harm is done by priests and musicians imposing their preferences at weddings and funerals than ever was done by inappropriate music or eulogies!

  5. I really prefer the Requiem as a funeral Mass to anything else. I plan on putting in my will that I specifically want a Solemn High Requiem, if I get some funfetti vestment “Mass of Resurrection” somebody is getting haunted…(joking)

    Even outside of the TLM, I think it is good to restore (at least as a privileged option) our traditional Requiem Mass components. To me, it seems that Bishop Morlino’s active support of the options of violet and black are a step in right direction. I fail to see why it is so important to some priests that black be utterly and forever purged from our liturgical color repertoire. Its still in the GIRM, it wouldn’t even have to be restored because it was never done away with!

    As to other concerns, all black vestments are edged or decorated with gold and/or silver decor. Its the kind of “silver lining” to the metaphysical absurdity (to quote Fr. Naugle) that death is. Death, because of what it is, needs to be mourned and thus black is eminently appropriate for vestments especially in the Western world.

    I would second Mr. Saur’s concern, however, that hopefully Bp. Morlino provided for the funerals of baptized children who die before the age of reason. I’ve been to such a funeral according to the traditional books, it was certainly something else. This would be an important distinction to make as it really would be the only funeral that we could say is, in a way, primarily a celebration.

    1. Well, of course, in the EF, there is no Requiem for such children, in the formal sense….

    2. Dominic Montini said: “I fail to see why it is so important to some priests that black be utterly and forever purged from our liturgical color repertoire.”

      I could understand the desire to oppose black vestments and even come up with a new color (like grey) if we lived in a culture where black had no mourning connotation – but it often seems it is opposed out of a stubborn resistance to “going backwards” to something that is too Tridentine.

      I’ve also let people know I wish to have a Requiem Mass – though I’d be okay with either a low or high Mass.

  6. Black? What’s next — should parishes also take down their “Alleluia!” banners, as they clearly are too “happy” for a funeral?

    Liturgically speaking, I think the bishop is a bit tone-deaf and color-blind. At no other time is the character of a liturgical worship service so clearly focused on resurrection than at a funeral. Black vestments and paraments at a funeral strike me as the ultimate liturgical mixed message.

    Why downplay the joy of the good news?

    1. Black? What’s next — should parishes also take down their “Alleluia!” banners, as they clearly are too “happy” for a funeral?

      Yes? We change the paraments in our church all the time to match the celebration taking place…

      Liturgically speaking, I think the bishop is a bit tone-deaf and color-blind.

      I think accusations about what “the bishop is” should probably be delayed until we have a much better information about what he said.

      At no other time is the character of a liturgical worship service so clearly focused on resurrection than at a funeral.

      Easter Sunday?

    2. With all delicateness, we are never actually certain if the news is good for the soul in question.

    3. Agreed – some seem to have missed basic theology. Am also amused by those who often condemn when liturgy is too aligned with secular culture and yet justify black because that is what most folks choose to wear.

      Would suggest that many cultures understand and focus on resurrection (white) and that it can be a powerful countercultural ritual.

      Guess in the big scheme of things on funerals, there are much bigger elements to focus our attention on than whether we have black, white, violet, gray, or whatever. What about those pastoral ministers who comment on this blog about the reality of current funerals, what you run into when doing a funeral, the funeral industry which the church appears to rarely confront, the movement away from having the body at a wake, much less the funeral and then not doing a community burial service at a cemetery – instead, it is a rushed funeral, brief, quick, with as little ritual connection to the actual physical body; the death, passing, the emotional pain. What about legislating parishes having a community support a family, offering a community meal after the funeral; etc.

      Sorry, color choice is way down on my list of priorities – has this bishop not done many funerals? His MO seems to *ordering folks* – his priests; his parishes; etc. We know his proclivity for TLM restoration – this smacks of more of the same. Not exactly a pastoral decision – what is behind this *order* – there appears to be no sacramental, liturgical reasons that support this *order* – and is this just arbitrary? Without supporting reasons, it feels like he is just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic – a gimmick.

  7. With the growing popularity of “life celebrations,” the move to violet or black might be part of refocusing the funeral liturgy on praying for the dead rather than canonizing them and regaling everyone with tales of their mighty deeds.

    Yet, without corresponding changes to the preaching and music, changing the color of the priest’s vestment will go unnoticed. I would guess the majority of Catholics don’t think anything more of vestment color than what Father Bob likes to wear. With three color options, are our practices really any more sublime than what “Father Bob likes to wear?”

  8. Peter Rehwaldt :

    “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” is a question that met the women at the tomb on Easter morning, but it moved them past the tomb. By all means, meet folks where they are, in their grief, but do not leave them there!
    (For what it’s worth, please note that the speakers of that question in Luke 24 were not wearing black.)

    I presume that the fact that the passage you quote takes place on Easter Sunday (you know, AFTER Jesus is no longer dead but rather risen) is not lost on you. Thank you for having proven my point. I fully agree that once the grave of the person is opened, the need for black or mourning no longer exists.

    As it is, I will wear black so long as there is a corpse to be mourned…

  9. I went to the website for the Diocese of Madison. Next to the photograph of the bishop is the following statement:
    “We serve to ensure that all individuals throughout the 11-county diocese are graciously invited every day to meet
    the person of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead,
    face to face and be changed by him.”

    Would this risen Christ want us to greet him while wearing black, ESPECIALLY on the occasion of a funeral?

    As 1 Thessalonians, Chapter 4, says, “(13) Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. (14) We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

    1. Hmm… I don’t know, maybe the same risen Christ who inspired the church to make black the only option for a very long period of time.

      Maybe the same Christ who recognizes the need for people to morn a loss.

      Maybe the same Christ who recognizes that not all who die end up in heaven, and therefore recognizes that funerals should not be celebrated as if that were the case.

      1. Strange comment – can I assume that the *same risen Christ inspired the church for centuries* in supporting slavery, no separation of church and state, etc.

        How do you know that all who die don’t end up in heavan? You seem to have certitude that most of us don’t know about? You even speak for God I(“…the same Christ who…..). Do we celebrate a funeral based upon a human judgment of the one who has dies – thus, we think he/she is a sinner; so wear black; think he/she is a good person; so wear white? Read the funeral liturgies – that doesn’t appear to be the stance of the church. What happens to hope, love, charity? Could have sworn that a funeral mass is about Jesus Christ; not the person? We celebrate the victory and hope of Jesus Christ and pray for the community member who has died – if you think this means that this person is some type of saint or hero, well, that is an issue for those doing the liturgy. Thus, you teach those folks by enforcing that they wear black?

  10. On the liturgy planning sheet we give the bereaved for their liturgical planning we give the liturgical color options of violet, white or black for them to choose.

  11. If I was in that diocese w/ that controversial bishop I would wear black all the time.

  12. Of course there remains the canonical question of how a bishop believes he can require something (if indeed he has) that the liturgical books present to us as an option.

  13. WWJD?

    Yes, most people wear black as an expression of sympathy with those who are grieving the loss of a connection in the flesh with a dear friend or family member. This is the “meeting people where they are.”

    But it is also missing the SUBSTANCE of liturgical worship – our re/union with Christ. So what would Jesus do? Behave and dress in a way that encourages people to continue to focus on outward appearances, or invite them into a transfigurative experience?

    So let the person who presides as alter Christus imitate what Jesus would do.

    PS: Not quite sure how incongruous it would be to have the priest dressed in black while praying that “we wait in joyful hope … .”

  14. Thanks, Karl….but this assumes that Fr. Z’s third hand sources are reliable (big if)

    Fr. Z:

    “Morlino also said that he, personally, was going to use purple or black at funerals when opportune. He explained that funerals are for prayer for the deceased. White, on the other hand, is the color of those clothed in glory in heaven. It is not charity to neglect prayer for the dead. He added that, if he makes it to Purgatory when he dies, he will need prayers.”

    See my comments above…..bishop needs a refresher on theology and liturgy. The funeral mass focuses on Jesus Christ and the community and the hope of resurrection. Morlino appears to start with the person who has died, his own judgment and then choice of color. He states that funerals are to pray for the dead; not neglect prayer – well, that is what you do in any funeral liturgy but it starts with Jesus Christ – our resurrection and our hope. We pray for the dead through Jesus Christ.

    For those who seem to perpetually want to start with God in heaven as a focus, special language, ad orientem, etc., it is funny that we now suddenly start with the dead person. Taking Morlino at his word and we would never do a funeral in white – really? And his insertion of Purgatory – geez, is that a *place*? His explanation reminds me of my grade school catechism.

    If he didn’t *order* this; well, there is one positive.

    And, yes, Fr. Z – I am one of those older folks from the hippie days (how evil and terrible). And, yes, please move to Madison.

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