Black Vestments

When I was ministering in the United States (mainly Newark, NJ and Tri-State area), I never came across black vestments in use in the liturgy.  It was a theoretic option for November 2 and Funeral Masses/Masses for the Dead, but I have never actually seen it in use or had a family request it. In my experience in the US white was the main color for funeral Masses.

In Ireland things are more or less the same, with, in my experience, about 1/3 of funerals using violet rather than white for funerals.

However, this week, I received an email from Veritas, the biggest religious store here, advertising their latest sampling of vestments.  Among these they had a Black Chasuble with River Cross and Vines.  One example of black out of 34 is not necessarily an indication of a huge increase in black vestments.  It is also worth noting that there is one “pink and purple” example (I have written before how the rose option is very rarely used here) and one blue option (I imagine this is for any Spanish priest who is vacationing in Ireland and wishes to buy vestments in Ireland to bring home with him to Spain, as there is no option for blue vestments here).

Ten years ago, there was a discussion on PrayTell on the use of Black Vestments in Madison, WI.  Now ten years later, it might be good to reflect on whether the liturgical use of black is more or less common.

In the Irish context, I think that this is simply a case of Veritas importing vestments that their supplier had available and that there was little thought as to the popularity of black vestments being used here and that this was not an attempt by Veritas to influence the choice of  liturgical color used in Irish Funeral Masses.  But perhaps there is an increase in the use of Black Vestments in other places or areas that I am unfamiliar with.

39 comments

  1. Am I right in thinking that in the Orthodox churches, white is the usual colour for vestments at funerals?

    AG

  2. I know this isn’t the main reason we should use to choose vestment color… but man the black and silver just looks cool.

  3. I don’t see why this revert to black. If our focus at a funeral is the JOY of the promise we have in Jesus resurrection, white (Easter) makes perfect sense. To me, a preference for black stresses a negative approach to death & a sense of finality & loss rather than new life.

    1. Among other things, because people generally don’t like talking about the Four Last Things (although my bishop does — he reminded godparents at confirmation that they will be judged on what they did in relation to the godchild), and that means facing the uncomfortable truth that not everyone partakes immediately, or ever, of the beatific vision.

      I also find that black vestments more appropriate for grieving, or at least not taking away, from it. Although this is slowly evolving, mostly because black and even dark grey suits are entirely out of place in the professional world nowadays, everyone understands that you wear black for funerals, or at least it’s no surprise when someone does and when we see it from Hollywood.

      The focus of the funeral isn’t on three of the Four Last Things; it’s on all four of them, but the joy of one tends to eclipse the others.

  4. Black vestments are strikingly beautiful. As I wrote 10 years ago in the post that is linked, in my previous parish and now in my current parish, we give the family or individual the choices of black, violet or white. Most choose white. We use black for All Souls’ Day. When people see black vestments, they like how they look. I suspect the reason so many don’t choose black vestments is because they don’t want to be encouraged in their grief symbolized by the black. I suspect white is a part of the denial of grief. Let’s be happy and look cheerful and sing hymns that are joyful. Black vestments have a tendency to emphasize the somberness and seriousness that death and grieving are.

  5. When I was in the second grade at a Catholic school in Newark, NJ, (1962), I attended the funeral of a classmate who had died in a car accident. The vestments were black. I remembered being terrified and alone by all the black. When I was 14 In 1969, my mother’s funeral was one of the first funerals to use white vestments in the Newark Archdiocese. My family had a white pall made for her coffin. It became the “family pall” and we still use it. I remember that day well. My brother was in seminary and one of my sisters was in religious life. The sanctuary was filled with priests and seminarians in white vestments. In my grief, I felt hope and a sense of community. I find it very upsetting whenever I serve at a funeral now and the celebrant is wearing black or purple. In my mind, the Funeral Mass should be that anchor of Hope and community as members of the Body of Christ in the depths of grieving. The white reminds us of our Baptism and the promise of Resurrection. Blessings.

  6. As with so many of these controverted liturgical matters, reasonable arguments can be advanced on all sides – including even for the color of vestments at funerals.
    In my early parish assignments, I did lots of funerals – the full three-part ritual of wake, funeral Mass, and burial. In that sense they were still traditional funerals, although the spirit of the funeral experience was already becoming radically altered from its original and presumably primary purpose. And it is hard not to conclude that this was in part due to the unfortunate American adoption of white vestments as the common funeral color, which (whatever the original intention) reflected the increasingly therapeutic turn in our culture in the last part of the 20th century.
    But more problematic to me than the unfortunate use of white vestments – with their hint of premature canonization – was the growing custom of eulogies and other practices increasingly less and less reflective of the Church’s (or any religious) faith that was ostensibly being proclaimed in the rest of the service. More and more often now however, the three-station funeral is becoming a thing of the past. Even the funeral Mass itself -s often omitted. Or it is delayed and accordingly reconfigured as an after-the-fact “Memorial Mass” or “Celebration of Life.” The increasing popularity of cremation is obviously a contributing factor. (A decade or so ago, I was shown a closet full of unclaimed cremated ashes, of “loved ones” who had in effect been disposed of with minimal or no ceremony).
    Our faith challenges us both to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect our duty to pray for those who have gone before us. Also, praying for both the living and the dead is considered one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, while burying the dead counts as one of the seven corporal works of mercy. Hence, the funeral which should be an especially privileged moment when the entire Church publicly intercedes on behalf on the recently departed.

  7. So far, it seems no one has really answered Fr O’Donoghue’s actual albeit implied question: whether the liturgical use of black is more or less common over the last ten years.

    I can’t tell from personal experience. White was ubiquitous for decades of my experiences of funerals (the first in 1974, when I was 13), with violet creeping in during the last generation, a shift I welcomed – particularly as I reflected on the additional gloss given to violet vestments after the Council in connection with Advent: hopeful expectation. I have yet to personally witness a funeral with black vestments. The trend I’ve noticed is that…there are just fewer funeral Masses, fewer services being held with vested clergy at all.

    Given my own experience of implementing funerals for loved ones, a question that comes to my mind is how often to bereavement committees (or their ilk) and priests/deacons ever invite those tasked with planning or implementing funeral arrangements for their own preferences regarding vestment colors? How gracefully would they engage*/accede to those preferences if they were not aligned with their own?

    * And by engage I don’t mean simply state variations on “this is how we do things here” – a not uncommon approach to liturgical questions at the parish level.

    1. In England & Wales, the normative liturgical colour for funerals is purple (with white as an alternative option) – in accordance with the typical edition of the GIRM. Unlike the US version which extended black among such permitted options.

      My experience here is that purple remains typical parish practice with lesser use of white mostly limited to particular circumstances and often specially requested by families (esp for babies/children or tragic deaths).

      White is also more likely at concelebrated masses with multiple attending clergy (often the case at funerals) wearing matching official diocesan vestments (white/colour trim) to avoid a mismatch of styles/colours (ie practical/ ascetic reasons).

      In addition, 1960/70 indults (still in force) allow black vestments upon request only for requiem masses – both 1962 as well as reformed rites. Written prior instructions (usually within a will) was an indult requirement for authorising use of the 1962 rite!

      Use of black vestments here since the reforms was always exceptional (and increasingly infrequent), nearly always within these indult limitations; which also required parishes to own a black vestments set – usually gothic style purchased early 1970s but rarely, if ever, used – found at the back of the bottom drawer in sacristy dresser alongside a few stray fraying maniples!

      The only other few times I saw black used related to convert Anglo-Catholic priests on Holy Souls day (despite this not being recent local custom). Even this clergy subgroup group knew not to try reintroducing black at funerals on their own initiative – although a few trad militants from the more recent wave of converts (also more likely to publicly advocate against V2 liturgical reforms and impose TLM upon their parishioners) have tried pushing boundaries.

      In other words, most UK clergy are content using both purple/white to varying degrees – with normative prohibition of black no longer being a widespread contentious issue… except among a few with other baggage!

  8. I have never seen purple or black vestments at a funeral. In the abstract, I like the idea of black vestments but in practice I would probably advise against it just given the predominance of white over the last few decades. And at least a few people in attendance might have a negative reaction. There are predominately white vestments with significant amount of black that may offer the best of both worlds. Basically Todd Flowerday’s idea sans purple.

    Such as is found here:
    https://www.chagalldesign.com/products/ref-20-2521-gray-on-white

    1. The white chasuble with black or violet banding is a great compromise. I had a very nice one similar to the one you link in my 1990’s parish, but in subsequent parishes could not find it to purchase again.

      1. I’ve long thought it would be handy to have a fully reversible chasuble of violet-on-white//white-on-violet.

  9. Back in the 1990’s our parish purchased a beautiful vestment/pall set for funerals from Gaspard. The material was made of a light cream color with very thin strands of gold running through it. It had a nice grey panel in the middle and on the sleeves. The cross that ran the length and width on the pall was the same grey band.
    For us the gray(i guess we could have used purple or black) was symbolic of loss and grief which is very present at funerals contrasting the joy of Resurrection.
    Everyone really liked it and I think it captures both grief & hope vs the use of black.
    FYI…Lutheran use black vestments on Ash Wednesday….

  10. It is not common in my experience.

    It seems to me that we need a more disciplined theological reflection on the meaning of the Christian funeral before we can adequately judge what is appropriate for this celebration by way of vestments.

    Sales catalogs are the worst place to look for norms and guidance. They will sell anything if it gains the company a profit.

    1. I would agree. What puzzles me is the previous remark about wearing white vestments being the equivalent of a canonization as if the liturgy were a celebration of a person’s life and not, as always, a proclamation of the paschal mystery. As the ancient Roman Preface for the Dead says, “For your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended; and, when our earthly abode lies in dust, an eternal dwelling is prepared in heaven.”

      1. You seem to have hit the nail on the proverbial head. There’s been a lot of idle chatter about funerals looking like canonization ceremonies especially among self-styled traditionalists. So let’s go back to the good old days of black vestments and that should do that trend in. So how did the color black become associated with mourning and death? I truly don’t know and I don’t think many other people do either. On the other hand, white and gold vestments are clearly associated with the celebrations of central feasts like Easter and Christmas. The Mass of Christian Burial in the NO is designed to be a clear celebration of the Paschal Mystery which gives people hope that “life is changed, not ended.” Perhaps there is a place with God for even the most imperfect of us? Nah, let’s find a cantor who can wail the Dies Ires while we all contemplate disappearing into the black of night.

      2. Just pointing out that the discussion on white is rather American/Anglo-European where the use of white for funerals is an adaption of the GIRM.

        The “typical” colour of the GIRM is purple, with black where it is the custom, and purple is still a very common colour in many parts of the world.

        Not to forget SE/South Asian countries where white, rather than black, is the cultural colour of mourning – and thus some of the liturgical colours are different!

  11. Utterly unrelated except for implications for unexpected surprises in vestment colors: This year is the first time since the conciliar calendar and missal came into effect that the Solemnity of the Nativity of S John the Baptist is displaced to its vigil day by the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

    Thursday the 23rd may surprise daily Mass celebrants/ministers who don’t look closely at the calendar as they prepare vestments, lections and psalms.

    The last time Easter fell on April 17th was 1960. But this year is the first of the usual cycle of three with 11-year spacing: it will recur in 2033 and 2044 before another multi-decade hiccup (the next time after that is 2101).

  12. I don’t understand why violet vestments for funerals have such appeal for Karl, Fritz, and Father Anthony, among other Pray Tell participants. To me, white vestments at funerals are a constant reminder of Jesus and the Resurrection, whereas violet vestments are a constant reminder of the sins of the deceased.

    1. I explained my reason: hopeful expectation, which is the Advent connection. During Advent, perhaps my favorite liturgical season (I know I am hardly alone in that regard among liturgy folks), we concern ourselves with the multiple comings of Christ, as it were. Not just the historical Nativity at Christmas. Also the coming of Christ at the consummation of all things. And, in between, at the end of our lives in this mortal plane. The now/not-yetness of Advent resonates with the sense that, while the Paschal Mystery ensures that Death does not have the final word in the New Creation into which we are baptised, we still contend with illness and the mortality of this plane of Old Creation coexists with it until the end of time as we know it.

      It’s not a reductive “sins of the deceased” thing unless one chooses it make it so.

      I don’t object to white, and I understand its aptness. I don’t embrace black. Violet offers some more complexity that fits my spirituality and that of many Catholics I’ve known. I do appreciate that the Church in its wisdom has not insisted on a binary approach here. And I appreciate when its ministers don’t either.

      1. Karl, I don’t want to dismiss your thoughtful interpretation of funeral violet as resembling Advent violet rather than Lent violet. I suspect, though, that most funeral worshippers see violet as Lenten and penitential. And if it’s penitential, what sins is the congregation supposed to think about? The sins of the person being buried, presumably. The Resurrection is a bigger reality than those sins are, so I’m for white in my own case.
        One way to bring Advent themes to funerals would be to use Advent blue vestments instead of violet ones. But the last time I looked, blue vestments weren’t on the approved list.
        In my lifetime, I’ve seen four liturgical colors used customarily at funerals: black, violet, white, and red (for popes). That leaves blue (not approved), grey (also not approved, though vestment manufacturers have produced it), rose, green, and “festive”—with plausible arguments, I think, for the appropriateness of any of those nine, including the last three.
        I agree with Rita Ferrone that the thinking on the subject needs to be corralled. There are so many good ideas in circulation!

      2. Paul

        It’s perfectly OK for you to prefer white. If you were the pastor, would you honor a parishioner’s request for violet or would you insist on your preference overriding theirs? (Were I a pastor, I would honor a parishioner’s request for white and not think it mistaken or something that needs to be justified or explained.)

        As you note, Advent blue vestments are not a thing for Catholic liturgy, and even the historical practice is a very slender and wobbly reed. It’s more of a modern invention, and fortunately its equivocal historicity is becoming better known and the urge to adopt the modern invention appears to have abated in Catholic circles.

      3. Curiosity question for Liam. I agree about honoring a parishoner’s request, but if you were pastor would you offer a choice of vestment color options in the first place or would you not discuss it unless the parishoner brought it up first? Would this extend to other parts of liturgy such as the preface or choice of Eucharistic Prayer?

      4. Devin

        I ‘d consider it. It’s very frequently the case that other aspects of the funeral liturgy are the subject of inquiry and dialogue with the principals on the mourning side of things. It doesn’t mean all requests are equally apt or feasible in a general sense, but in the case of vestments the Church clearly sets out simple and equally feasible options.

      5. Now there’s an upsetting hypothetical question, Karl Liam Saur. If I were a pastor??
        If I were, and hypothetical parishioners asked me for my preference, I’d tell them what it was and why. But if they sincerely wanted violet/purple, I wouldn’t try to talk them out of it (nor would I ask them to cite theological sources to back up their choice). You just don’t do things like that to grieving people.
        Well, maybe in some places you do, I fear. It sounds as though you have some unedifying stories to tell.

  13. Polarisation seems to be the order of the day in so many aspects of life including in matters to do with death. Some 30 years ago I picked up a second hand Louis Grosse chasuble and cope. These were black with orphreys of yellow/gold/red. At a funeral we mourn AND give thanks. The striking combination of dark vestments with bright orphreys seems to reflect this. Maybe I would say this – I am an Anglican. Long live the via media!

  14. To answer Father’s question: Worked at a fairly typical suburban parish from 2012 to 2015. Went to such a parish growing up. Gap in the middle of mostly attending the Latin Mass.

    When I was growing up in suburban US parish world, I never saw black. When working there later, I did occasionally.

    So, yes. I think it is more common now.

    To the other conversation that has been happening. One person’s opinion and nothing more:

    Black is my preference. The Paschal Mystery is capable of touching the very depths of human grief and pain. It’s accompaniment and incarnational liturgy at its finest to put on grief and infuse it with hope. It’s Jesus weeping even for the man He knew He was about to raise.

    But I’m the odd duck who finds the Missal of 1970 *more* intellectual and coldly rational, and the Missal of 1570 and its close relatives more earthy and human, and prefers the latter for that reason…

    I think that’s why celebrants often feel the need to go beyond the books and add to the modern Missal, but that’s what people from my native state of Arkansas would call “a whole nother” topic.

  15. Maybe black is back because people need to mourn. Here’s a secular example. A long-time and well-loved anchor woman in my area recently died, quite unexpectedly. The announcement was made on the morning news the next day as she died overnight. The anchors who made it were in black, her photo rimmed in black with her dates and “sad” music played as they went to and came back from commercial breaks. Everyone wore the ubiquitous black ribbon on their lapels. Viewers brought flowers and food to the station and messages that viewers sent in expressing grief and condolences were scrolled during each news segment.
    After a month or so the music played going to commercials with her photos changed to something brighter as did the background, with the addition of the words “Remembering our friend Denise,” the on-screen staff exchanged their black ribbons for a coral-colored one, her favorite color, which they continued to wear for quite a while. After a healthy period of expressing grief and mourning, sorrow turned to grateful remembrance. Maybe people need black before they’re ready for white. That is not a bad thing.

    1. I understand BBC news presenters keep black attire available to don before making an announcement of a death. This was certainly done when the Duke of Edinburgh died.

  16. Other than a handful that used white, and maybe two handfuls that used violet, I’ve only seen black at Funerals for the past decade. I worked for a rather conservative Cathedral and now a rather conservative Parish, so that may make my experience different than most.. but when I see white now, it’s quite jarring.

  17. My memory of Black is not at funerals, but on Good Friday when I seem to remember the chasuble was rolled up. I think black sets had special ribbons to facilitate that.
    Or I might be totally wrong.

  18. “It seems to me that we need a more disciplined theological reflection on the meaning of the Christian funeral before we can adequately judge what is appropriate for this celebration by way of vestments.”

    There are a few comments which have gotten at just this. I’m totally in agreement with Frs. McDonald and Franco.

    “What puzzles me is the previous remark about wearing white vestments being the equivalent of a canonization as if the liturgy were a celebration of a person’s life and not, as always, a proclamation of the paschal mystery.” Sheer naivety, at best — it’s not the whole thing, but as Fr Franco said, it goes with the trend. Take away white vestments and you tone down the canonzatiion aspect.

    Also, violet is normative in France, and black in the great churches of Austria and Germany, irrespective of liturgical or theological preference otherwise; my understanding is that smaller parishes in the country might use violet instead.

    And if you’re in the US and haven’t seen black, you need to get out of your bubble.

    1. I would appreciate a fuller explication of why the comment about why wearing white at a funeral is not a canonization but a celebration of the paschal mystery is an example of “naivety at best.” The reformed funeral rite begins with the greeting at the door and the use of words and gestures such as the sprinkling with holy water and the spreading of the pall which evoke the deceased’s “christening.” The concluding rite is no longer an “absolution” but a “final commendation” in which we hand over the deceased in hope to God. One might almost say that celebrating with those words and gestures while wearing black is at least cognitive dissonance.

  19. Age 13, as school mates and I attended daily Mass, “Pop” Carroll, pastor at Barrytown, would say a Black Mass. This was 1950. He had the requiem Mass down to 20 minutes, including sweeping left and right at the Communion rail. A few years later, reading old issues of Orate Fratres foretold well-founded coming changes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *