Funerals are one of the trickiest church services out there. The person with whom the service spends the most attention (after God Almighty, of course), is no longer around for consultation on what the service should be like. There is frequent tension between having a formal service with its comforting traditions and an informal service with a more personalized character. How do we memoralize the dear departed adequately and appropriately, while still worship God only and keep the focus on Him? A lot of people say that they want their funeral service to be happy, but for those who actually attend, it’s often their only chance to work through their grief and mourning together.
For some people, the subject of debate that I’m about to explore will seem strangely attentive to minutia that doesn’t matter: liturgical colors. But, as I hope to explain along the way, the reasons behind the traditions of the Church carry not just aesthetic appeal, but serious theological conviction and even (at times) a didactic (meaning “teaching”) value. The question I’m working through here is whether the liturgical color of a funeral should be black or white.
The Contemporary Option
Since the 1960’s, a massive movement known as the liturgical renewal swept across the Western Church. This is responsible for much of the content of the revolutionary 1979 Episcopalian prayer book, the Roman Catholic Mass in languages other than Latin, contemporary music introduced into many previously hymns-only congregations, a simplification of liturgical calendars, and the adoption of new lectionaries in many different traditions, including even some Protestant denominations that previously hadn’t used any lectionary at all.
One of the more specific details that came out of this movement was that funeral services changed from having black-colored vestments for the clergy and church décor to having white instead. What does white signify here?
White is a picture of holiness. It’s the color used for Easter and Christmas and several other major holidays throughout the year. It portrays the sanctity of Christ, the holiness of His Bride the Church, and the perfection that we Christians are headed for at the end of the age. In the book of the Revelation, all the saints are seen to be wearing white robes for this very reason.
White emphasizes the resurrection. Rather than dwelling on death, white points the liturgical participants’ attention toward the resurrection of Christ which gives us the solid hope of our own bodily resurrection at the end of the age. It takes us away from mourning the departed and directs us toward rejoicing in the victorious work of Christ. Rather than emphasizing the power of sin and evil that is death, we emphasize the power of God that overcomes death.
The Old Requiem Black
Black, as one might expect from a number of Scripture’s illustrations, is a picture of sin. As a liturgical color, black was particularly used for funerals (or requiem masses), Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and probably some other similar days of intense fasting and penitence. I say “was used”, because one of the simplifications that came with the Liturgical Renewal Movement was the almost complete elimination of black vestments across the board. You have to find a particularly traditionalist parish who’ll still use the black on such occasions.
Anyway, as a picture of sin, black as a liturgical color emphasizes the need for repentance. We are all sinners before God’s feet, and the fact that evil and death exist in the world is the most vivid reminder of the reality of the reign of sin in this present world. Therefore death is a time of mourning – not only emotionally, but spiritually as well! Yes, we grieve the loss of loved ones, and need time to work through that pain. But in addition to that, deaths remind us that sin is still a power that has a nasty sting, and we’re reminded that we, too, will die someday. It is a somber and sobering thing!
Black acknowledges a victory of the Devil. Despite the Christian knowledge that Jesus reigns and shall overturn and defeat even death itself at the end, the present reality is that death still happens. And not only that, death is the just punishment for our sins! Yes, we have faith in the salvation wrought for us by Christ on the Cross, and yes we have a reasonable hope of escaping the Second Death, but for this limited time, evil and death have their way with us.
As I’ve presented them thus far, both the old and new traditions have their positive values. Now we turn to the shortcomings of each color. And, as is often the case in many areas, their strengths tend also to be their weaknesses.
White is a very forward-looking choice for a funeral. It points us past the present reality of death, past the grief we are experiencing, and towards the Day of great joy when the dead are raised and God’s people are bodily reunited with one another and their Lord for ever after. The problem is, it all-too-easily pushes out all room for mourning and grief whatsoever. “Yes your beloved friend died, but she’ll come back at the end of the age, so you should be happy!” It’s emotionally discordant with the hearts of the people in the congregation. As one celebrant observed, the funeral service is most folks’ last opportunity to say goodbye. No matter how you slice it, that is a very sad moment, and the joyful message of liturgical white creates cognitive dissonance.
The problem with black, on the other hand, rather than false and forced joy, is excessive morbidity. If the visual reminders of human sinfulness are over-emphasized, the Christian’s reasonable hope of resurrection to eternal glory may end up obscured. After all, if Christ is supposed to be our victorious King, why should we spend time dwelling on the interim period where His reign is not yet fully manifest?
Grief & Hope
The primary dynamic in this white v. black debate, I think, is the reality of grief on one hand and the reality of our hope on the other. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, we read:
But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
Saint Paul notes both grief and hope as proper Christian responses to death. Our hope is in the Resurrection of the Dead. Our grief is in the separation from our loved ones caused by death. Sometimes people misunderstand these verses, and assert that Christians should not grieve death at all. That is a horrific misunderstanding of this verse. What Paul wrote is that we should not grieve as others do who have no hope. We definitely do grieve! The important thing is that our grief exists alongside a joy-giving hope of resurrection beyond death.
So the value of white’s hope and black’s grief are both Scriptural and pastoral. Is one better than the other, though, and why?
My Opinion: Black is best.
There are two reasons I prefer the message of the black vestments at funerals over white: one is cultural, the other theological, and both with pastoral concern in mind.
Culturally, we in the West have a strange relationship with death. In one sense we’re obsessed with it – killing babies in the womb, producing increasingly violent TV shows and movies, and almost obsessed at times with zombies and vampires and post-apocalyptic story settings. But at the same time we vehemently ignore death as much as possible. Talking about one’s own future death is practically a taboo. We fill our fantasies with death because we want death to be fantasy, and not a reality. As a result, when someone we know and care about actually dies, we don’t know what to do. With infant mortality so rare compared to much of world history and so many of our elderly population hidden from sight in special care facilities, death is almost always a surprise when it confronts us publicly. And with that limited exposure to real death, we don’t learn how to mourn properly.
In church, at a funeral service, is one of the only opportunities people have to mourn together. Pastors, I think, need to provide people with that space, and help walk them through that process. This is not to say that one funeral service will ever suffice to bring people through the whole grieving process and give them immediate closure! But the funeral is the only opportunity (in most cases) to provide a public expression of grief that can be shared. After all, both good times and bad times bring people together. The emphasis on grief represented by liturgical black provides exactly what the culture around us does not, these days.
Theologically, the death of a human being is evil and unnatural. It is a result of sin, nothing else. God did not create humans to whither and die, but to live forever with Him; only the human acceptance of sin in the Garden of Eden brought decay and death into our otherwise-perfect human nature. Therefore, even though death can be appreciated as a release from suffering, and even though the departed souls remain in God’s hands, it is still wrong. Humans weren’t meant to have their souls and bodies separated!
A frequent mistake we make concerning death is to act as though the Resurrection on the Last Day is merely a spiritual event that occurs with death. The body dies and the soul is “freed of its burden” to be with God in Paradise. That is not the Christian Gospel, that is Gnostic heresy. The body is good, and our souls belong with our bodies! By wearing white vestments funerals to celebrate the future resurrection all-too-easily ends up being a miscommunication about the departed soul’s state. Heaven and Hell are not where dead people go, but where the Resurrected people go on the Last Day of Judgment. Yes, the souls of the faithful departed are “in the hands of God” enjoying foretastes of their final destination, but the final definite entering into glory face to face with Christ does not occur until they get their bodies back at the End.
In all things, charity
Of course, the preference to express the funeral reality with black vestments is my own opinion, and I may well be in the minority. I don’t condemn those who choose and prefer white. I would not refuse to wear white vestments if I were assisting another clergyman at a funeral. But insofar that I get to have a say in the matter, I will advocate for black. I write this not only to explain my reasoning, but also in the hopes that I may help this “old” tradition make a proper come-back.