While at Notre Dame, I saw a set of black vestments on display at the museum attached to the basilica and the homily at St. Austin’s yesterday made mention to them as something thrown out with good reason.
The more I think about them and reflect upon what symbolism they could still represent, the more I would like to see them used more.
Black vestments “fell out of style” during the post-Vatican II reforms. Along with the liturgy and the calendar, vestments were changed as well.
Traditionally, black vestments were worn on Good Friday and Offices of the Dead (inclusive of funerals). During the post-Vatican II reforms, red vestments were permitted for Good Friday and violet or white were allowed for funerals and the like.
Black vestments were mostly set to gather dust in the closet if kept at all. In addition to being cheaper, since vestments are rather expensive, there is a sound theological reason not to use the black. White vestments symbolize the resurrection and new life. Death is the passing from this life to the new life in Christ and so white vestments would be proper.
However, the mourning that black vestments represent is just equally as proper. Today, we speak of God’s saving grace being the first and foremost and so we should be joyful at an occasion of his grace being used to save one of us. God’s grace is what saves us, without it, we would truly receive what we deserve which is eternal damnation. That being said, the mourning of the black vestments is still proper. Death is a sad event, although it can be joyful as we think of our loved ones ascending to the heavenly banquet.
We are not instantly canonized. The white, symbolizing our new life, is a sign of our, we pray, soon-to-be “canonization” after death. However, black vestments symbolize that we’re not there yet, we need prayers and that it’s acceptable to mourn. If we all were instantly canonized at the moment of death, All Souls’ Day would have no purpose. We would celebrate and remember our dead through All Saints’ Day exclusively. We pray that all who we mourn for will be raised to the altars and through God’s saving grace, I hope and believe that most will. Our prayers for the faithful departed that they may rest in the peace of Christ are still needed; it’s not something pre-Vatican II that we can ignore in the 21st century.
Likewise, I am not at all saying that we shouldn’t use white, but simply offering that we shouldn’t be so quickly to ignore the option of black vestments. As No. 39 of the General Introdution to the Order of Christian Funerals (the actual name of the funeral rite) states:
The liturgical color chosen for funerals should express Christian hope but should not be offensive to human grief or sorrow.
All of that being said, personally, I think I would want something like the following:
Office of the Dead:
I haven’t personally seen this done, but it’s something I personally like. Usually, there are a few days between death and the full funeral rite (vigil, liturgy and burial). Somewhere in that time, having an Evening Prayer of the Office of the Dead would be nice. If a deacon or priest is able to lead it, I would like alb/surplice with a black stole and black cope. As mentioned in the Order of Christian Funerals, the timing of the Office can vary. For example, if the funeral is the evening before burial, Morning Prayer would be proper before the rite of committal. The Office of the Dead would be a time of mourning and prayer. The prayer would be directed to God through the psalms and reading handed down to us. It would help soothe our grief, reminding us of God’s infinite love. Also, it would be a prayer towards God asking for the repose of the soul that has now left this earth. I would wish to be a private affair, close family members and friends only.
Part 1: Vigil for the Deceased
This is usually done in the funeral home chapel and is known also as the “Christian Wake”. Many familes have a rosary instead. I would much prefer to have an actual vigil. The priest, in accordance with whatever the norms are at the time, should be dressed with alb/surplice with a black stole.
The vigil itself would go in the usual fashion. Greeting, song, prayer, scripture, prayer, Our Father, prayer and blessing.
This would be the first “public” service. While most people would wait until the funeral liturgy itself, this would be an occasion for those who would be unable to attend to pray in the presence of the deceased and a chance to offer condolences to the family. The goals of this rite would be similar to the Office of the Dead mentioned above as well prayer with the deceased, keeping vigil over the body until funeral liturgy would take place. Traditionally, the vigil would last until the funeral the next morning. Modern circumstances do not usually merit the traditional treatment, which is fine with me (It is still a laudable tradition nonetheless).
Part 2: The Funeral Liturgy
The liturgy would begin at the funeral home with the Transfer of the Body to the Church: a short reading and prayers. The procession would head to the church.
The Liturgy would include reception at the church and Mass. As far as vestments are concerned, I am mixed. At the funeral and burial, I could see the desire for white vestments to be used. The Church is bringing the deceased in a special way towards the resurrection of Christ, that is, the grief is met by the Eucharstic Sacrifice. The sorrow of death is met by the joy of the Risen Christ. At the same time, it is a great catechetical opportunity that could be futhered by black vestments. The more I ponder it, I would say white would be better. While we don’t know the state of the soul, white can be used to symbolize the hope of his rising to new life.
Part 3: Rite of Committal
This is the “final act of the community of faith in caring for the body of its deceased member” (No. 204). It is the short graveside service consisting of scripture and prayer. As this is usually directly following the Liturgy, vestments from Mass would be proper, with the exception of the chasuble.
In the Catholic tradition, the first anniversary of a death is usually remembered by a votive Mass. For future celebrations, I would probably remain with white vestments.
Remember to pray for the faithful departed.