What to Wear: Purple, White or Black?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

In the Church today there are a number of issues, often liturgical in nature, that are commonly used to define conservatives and liberals.

For example, do you prefer to receive Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand; kneeling or standing? Does your pastor wear a cassock frequently or would he never be caught dead in one? Do you find Eucharistic adoration to be a beautiful opportunity for prayer, or an anachronistic relic of the past? And for the opening music at Mass, do you prefer the solemn Gregorian chant of the Introit or the rousing liberal anthem “All Are Welcome?”

And how about this: for Funeral Masses, what color of vestments should be worn – purple, white or black? All three are permitted, of course, but it seems that at least in some circles the choice of colors has assumed theological and pastoral significance well beyond anything the Church intends. Indeed, I’ve heard some priests become rather emotional, almost apoplectic over the topic.

First, a review of liturgical law might be helpful, for there we find that all three colors of vestments are permitted for funerals. (The same principles apply to Masses offered on All Souls Day, by the way.)

The Order of Christian Funerals (1987) says this about liturgical color: “The liturgical color chosen for funerals should express Christian hope but should not be offensive to human grief or sorrow. In the United States, white, violet or black vestments may be worn.” (#39)

The English translation of General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2011) has an apparent preference for purple when it says: “The color violet or purple may be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead . . . Besides the color violet, the colors of 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.” (#346)

The emphasis here is that white or black “may” be used, not that they should be or must be.

It seems that the use of white vestments for Funeral Masses is largely an American phenomenon, developed in recent years, and that most other regions of the world continue to use the more traditional purple or black.

Each color, of course, has its own significance.

In the liturgy, purple normally signifies the repentance of sins (for Lent) or hope-filled anticipation (for Advent). Both sentiments are fitting for a Funeral Mass when the Church prays for the soul of the departed and asks forgiveness of sins, and as we express our longing for the Second Coming of Christ when the bodies of all the dead will be raised.

The practical side of me says that purple is a compromise color, incorporating both the sadness of death and the hint of future glory.

The use of white has its proper significance too, and I’m sure that’s why the American Bishops adapted its use in the 1970s. White speaks of the new life and hope that comes from our belief in the Resurrection of Christ. It reminds us that death is not the ultimate reality, but that eternal life is. That’s an important belief for us to celebrate and proclaim to others, isn’t it? And, remember too, it’s our rejoicing in the promise of the resurrection and life eternal life that allows us to sing “alleluia” during the Funeral Mass, even in the face of death!

The significance of black is self-evident. From a strictly human perspective death is a time of mystery and fear as we depart this world and enter the realm of the nether world. 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 heart-rending emotions for loved ones who experience profound loneliness at the permanent loss of a family member or dear friend. It’s no accident that in most cultures when people attend a funeral, even in secular settings, they spontaneously choose to wear black attire, not white. It speaks to a primordial human instinct, doesn’t it?

Some local applications have apparently grown up over the choice of vestment colors for funerals. I’ve been told, but cannot verify, that some pastors will choose the color of vestments for a Funeral Mass to signal the perceived “status” of the deceased. In other words, for an upstanding, active and generous Catholic, white will be used. For a known but not overly devout or involved parishioner, the choice is purple. And for the parishioner who’s been on the margins of the Church, a “black sheep” we might say, black will be the color “du jour.” (Of course, some traditional Catholics would opt to have black vestments used at their Funeral Mass in any event.) To be clear, however, the assignment of various colors to indicate the status of the deceased is not a pastoral practice I’d recommend!

Questionable practices aside, it’s the obligation of the pastor to choose the color of vestments worn at a Funeral Mass. That choice should be determined by legitimate criteria, of course.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t fret over the vestment color selected for a funeral or infuse too much theological or pastoral meaning in its choice. Each color has its own significance, and the use of each is absolutely acceptable. Regardless, in Catholic funeral rites the total reality of the paschal mystery – death and resurrection – patterned by Christ and fulfilled in the life of each believer should be remembered and proclaimed. As St. Paul reminds us: “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14:8)