Sacrosanctum Concilium 81

I have read of complaints in the St Blogosphere about the modern emphasis on resurrection at funerals. It was grounded in the bishops’ teaching at Vatican II:

The rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death, and should correspond more closely to the circumstances and traditions found in various regions. This holds good also for the liturgical color to be used.

Currently in the US that liturgical color is nearly always white, rarely violet or black.

I find the cultural phenomenon of funeral wear to be interesting. Black remains a color less, I think, of mourning, and more of an automatic tradition, especially for marginal churchgoers. Hence the sight of some young women wearing dresses of the “little black” variety to funerals, in an attempt to blend in, color-wise.

A friend complained to me about it once. (As if I were going to write a Sunday bulletin missive that funeral visitors would actually read.) I suggested he let it go; they were probably just trying to fit in because “little” was the only black dress they had.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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17 Responses to Sacrosanctum Concilium 81

  1. Anne says:

    I haven’t noticed anything too inappropriate here for funeral. I would just call the attire “tacky” and let it go. Depends on the weather here too….little black dresses and sunglasses, with big floppy hats in the summer….in the winter long black coats or or other warm clothing.

  2. mio says:

    I don’t get around the blogosphere but so much, but I don’t recall anyone complaining about the “modern emphasis on resurrection” in funerals. (Not that it doesn’t happen — just haven’t seen it).

    The complaints I’ve seen mostly relate to homilies and/or eulogies that flat-out declare the decedents to be canonized saints, while never hinting that they might, just might, benefit from our prayers.

  3. Liam says:

    I am quite in favor of violet (or at least off-white trimmed in violet) for funerals. I see more of it in the past few years, and I think it may be trending. Black I have never seen at a funeral (except violet trimmed in black), and I believe that the LBD (little black dress) rigor of the current US workplace* has drained black of its former communicative value. MOurning attire (of whatever culture, as it does vary) has an immensely practical aspect: it allows people their grief without having to explain it to anyone, and it allows the non-grieving notice that they are in the presence of people in grief. The loss of mourning attire was a disaster from a practical point of view.

    From my own point of view, I am all for reviving the former attire of half-mourning as full mourning, since that involves color combinations that will often stand apart from usual attire but without being too conspicuous.

    I am glad to see the 80s fad of referring to the funeral as the “Celebration of the Life of [N]” fade. I would like to see it extirpated, however. Lots of nonsense embedded in that psychobabble, including damage to people in grief. Americans already have a difficult time being in denial about death; we ought not lift a finger to encourage that denial.

    As for eulogies: American Catholics have been altogether too influenced by media (ditto in weddings) by our Protestantized secular culture. We don’t eulogize at Mass. At the wake and at the post-burial collation, we remember. Giving people the option to eulogize at Mass in many cases can act as an imposition of a requirement (because I can, therefore I must, else someone will be angry with me), and I’ve seen people crushed by being exposed alone in the sanctuary that at the worst possible time.

    * I do remember in the past twenty years there being a large meeting filled with women in LBDs (not a non-black dress among the lot) at a former company of mine, and someone remarking: “I am so sorry for your loss”, to the wondering reaction of those in LBDs. I rather liked it.

  4. Anne says:

    Back in the 50’s, I remember my grandmother wearing black for a year, the proper period of time for mourning in those days and before.

  5. Gavin says:

    I’ve gained a rather pessimistic attitude towards funerals after having 3 in a row at my job. My 1st one had a eulogy and I thought “how on Earth could my boss allow this?” 2nd one was pretty good, and the 3rd was a musical disaster. The music for the 3rd was 4 songs I would give anything to have never heard again. A eulogy just terribly upsets the whole Mass. Everything’s going well, you have lots of religous talk, and then someone gets up and stumbles through a story about how when they were 7, they said such and such to their parents, then they burst into tears for about a minute, then they make an awkward joke about how they were “always the favorite”. And THEN we pick back up with the God stuff. My boss is excellent about funerals: he doesn’t preach about all the nice things the deceased did, he preaches about all the nice things Jesus said and did. He treats it as an evangelical opportunity to reach out to the people there who might be unchurched (or have the “sunshine and puppies” pastor).

    I bring up music at the 3rd funeral because that drives home the point that SC makes. Within all 4 songs there was not ONE direct reference to Jesus, the only indirect reference to him was in “Gentle Woman”. It was all comfort, comfort, comfort, smother you with a pink blanket. But why are we comforted? No one knows. Without Jesus’s Resurrection, we have NO comfort (hence why I suggested “I Know that My Redeemer Lives”). If it weren’t for my boss and some good priests concelebrating, who knows if Jesus’s name would ever have popped up?

    The resurrection is a crucial element of a funeral, because without it we have no basis for hope, or as St. Paul said “we are people most to be pitied.” Seems to me that both liberal and conservative dropped the ball on this paragraph.

  6. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Here in Japan black used to be de rigeur on any formal occasion, so out come the black kimonoes, black suits, black dresses whether it was a wedding or a funeral. For weddings men wore white ties, and women were allowed to wear kimonoes with understated decoration around the hem. Only the Bride was allowed to be really colorful; red is the color of joy and celebration.
    The priests vestments were uniformally purple until about ten years ago; I broke with ‘tradition’ here at the seminary by wearing white for the Mass I celebrated the morning after I received news of my own mother’s death. Now the trend is for purple to be worn at the wake and white to be worn for the funeral. When I arrived back in the UK for my mother’s funeral there, my own father had put the word out that he would prefer if those attending didn’t wear black. The readings and hymns all spoke of the resurrection or the meaning of the Eucharist, and on the pamphlet he asked that they write “The Mass of the Resurrection in Memory of Moira Kelleher”; it was a strong statement of his faith, a faith that we share and he wished to share with all who attended that day.

  7. Cantor says:

    As I am one who has objected to the emphasis on resurrection in funerals, I’ll chime in here.

    I wasn’t around in 1962, but I think that, had nothing changed about the funeral rites other than having homilies and using the vernacular, it would have gone a long way toward placing more emphasis on resurrection than was there in, say, the 1950s. Or, rather, just clarifying what exactly is the Christian (i.e. Catholic) teaching on death, judgement, and salvation.

    I really do think, though, we have gone the other way entirely – to “sunshine and puppies”, as Gavin (again) so eloquently puts it. My parish still does the “celebration of the new life” thing on funeral programs.

    SC, interpreted in the West, is implicitly advocating black for a vestment color for funerals, IMO – it says, basically, to use the color that is common practice in a particular region. It does not say, “teach people to wear white at funerals”. Families still wear black because it’s their culture – what is wrong with this picture, when the priest is wearing a different color (not inculturating)?

    Anyway. White vestments at funerals – not the worst thing. Eulogies take the cake, followed not too distantly by asking families to choose readings and music. Why are we having people who probably cannot tell you why Advent has no Gloria on Sundays, and who are much too emotionally burdened to think clearly anyway, to choose texts for Mass?

  8. Gavin says:

    There’s certainly, as with many things, a right and a left to the truth that you can fall into. The left seems to be the majority, but there is also the idea out there that the pastor should ONLY tell the congregation that God is holding their aunt hostage at purgatory in exchange for rosaries and paid Masses. Thankfully that attitude really only exists among laity :P

    The music issue is a good point to make, although I’m curious to see what else SC has to say (this is my first experience reading through it). I myself am always happy to take requests within reason. At the very least, even if it is just “eagle’s wings” I’m glad to know music is important to members of the congregation. But as I’ve said, the very idea that people like myself and Cantor get PAID to pick music implies that it either requires skill OR that it is in some way a burden. To then turn around and give someone that job (without pay!) is just odd when you consider it.

  9. John Heavrin says:

    “…God is holding their aunt hostage at purgatory in exchange for rosaries and paid Masses…”

    We have a duty of charity to pray for the dead, rather than assume they are in Heaven, which is a scandal. Churlish and disedifying remarks like the above are wrong and scandalous, especially coming from a paid employee of a Catholic parish.

    Pray for the Poor Souls every day, generally and by name. And yes, having Masses offered is the most efficacious prayer of all.

  10. Gavin says:

    I am not a theologian, and we should all rejoice at that because I’d be a lousy one.

    The question at hand is not one of preaching prayer for the dead vs. preaching Christ’s resurrection. The topic is the appropriateness of a focus on Christ’s resurrection. My point isn’t that preaching prayer for the deceased is worthless, my point is that such prayer is useless without the merit of Christ and the hope gained for us by the Resurrection. If both are not preached, Catholics run the risk of falling into the strawman “works-righteousness” that they are oft accused of by protestants.

    From a theological angle, I find it odd that preaching about heaven is considered presumptuous while preaching about purgatory is not. Both presume the same thing – namely that the deceased is judged worthy of Heaven. Of course, that’s why I’m not a theologian.

    For my part, I intend to continue my suggestion of hymns about Christ for funerals, and I would like to start making use of the ol’ Requiem propers. I figure the Church might have a better idea what to sing than I.

  11. John Heavrin says:

    How’s this, Gavin:

    to imply that the deceased is in Hell is the fruit of despair;

    to imply that the deceased is in Heaven is the fruit of presumption;

    to imply that the deceased is in Purgatory is the fruit of hope.

    Prudence tells us which of the three we should infer, in every single case (save those whom the Church has canonized); and the Souls in Purgatory need prayers and Masses. To caricature this notion as some sort of ransom paid to God the Angry Captor who must be placated with “rosaries and paid Masses” is harmful to the promotion of prayer for the Poor Souls, which is an essential duty we have.

  12. John Heavrin says:

    Of course, preaching on the Resurrection and on Heaven is much to be encouraged (it isn’t done nearly enough, and not just at Requiem Masses) and can give great consolation and hope; but the preacher has to be careful, lest he imply that “the strife is o’er, the battle done,” when the obligation of the faithful is to pray for the soul of the deceased, not to engage in some sort of imprudent celebration. That’s my real point: exhort prayer for the souls in Purgatory, in a zealous but kind way, mindful of the grieving survivors, of course.

    White vestments and ill-considered homilies, etc. (and we’ve all been there), even if well-intentioned, all too often turn the Requiem into a faux Canonization, which is most unfortunate. A black chasuble can set a tone of humble supplication which is better than a ill-advised trimphalism.

    Preaching the Resurrection of Christ is laudable; implying, let alone taking for granted, the presence of the deceased in Heaven, is wrong and should be avoided in all cases, imo.

    Preach hope, not despair OR presumption.

  13. Cantor says:

    Actually, since presuming the deceased is in purgatory implies a presumption about the deceased’s relationship with God (i.e. was good enough not to be damned), don’t we have to shy away from presuming purgatory as well?

    Especially since nothing precludes God taking a soul in hell and bringing them to heaven, ISTM that prayer for the deceased is a good and worthy thing that requires no presumption.

  14. John Heavrin says:

    “…Especially since nothing precludes God taking a soul in hell and bringing them to heaven…”

    What precludes God from doing this is His respect for our free will. Ultimately the damned have chosen to be damned; He won’t overrule that choice. No furloughs or parole from Hell, by definition.

    Obviously we can’t know where the departed soul has gone (again, excepting the canonized), so we must proceed as if the soul is in Purgatory, where our prayers are urgently needed. This is not “presumption,” but the only prudent position; after all, since we can’t “know,” then we must choose from one of three possibilities, and only one of the three is “transient,” if you will; that is, only one of the three can be changed. If the soul is in Heaven, the prayers aren’t “needed,” but we trust in God’s providence that they certainly aren’t “wasted;” if the soul is condemned, the prayers are unavailing for that soul, but again, cannot be wasted.

    Everyone: please pray for the departed souls, collectively and individually, by name, every day!

    “Judge not” means Heaven too, not just Hell.

  15. Cantor says:

    Why must we choose from among any possibilities?

    I think we’re arguing over not much – we both agree that prayers for the dead are always a good thing, with the possible exception of praying for the beatified. I’m just thinking that there doesn’t need to be an assumption regarding the fate of the deceased.

    Re hell, what precludes a soul in hell from relenting of his/her choice not to accept the grace of God?

  16. Liam says:


    “What precludes a soul in hell from relenting of his/her choice not to accept the grace of God? ”

    I would venture basic Christian theology and cosmology. Among other things, hell (like Heaven) is outside of time (as well as space): there are no choices, as it is an Eternity. Choices imply time (because there is a before/after).

  17. Cantor says:


    This is what I was going from:

    Granted, the author posits that the idea that God would remove a soul from hell should be dismissed.

    Anyway, pray for ’em.

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