Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: The Order of Christian Funerals approved for use in the United States reads in No. 39: “The liturgical color chosen for funerals should express Christian hope but should not be offensive to human grief or sorrow. [emphasis mine] In the United States, white, violet, or black vestments may be worn at the funeral rites and at other offices and Masses for the dead.” A priest I know who wears black vestments at funerals recently also began using a black funeral pall over the casket, arguing that Benedict XVI’s principle of the “mutual enrichment” of the two expressions of the Roman rite would justify such an action, and also noting that a white funeral pall is not strictly prescribed by the rubrics nor a black pall forbidden. There’s also the basic issue of matching. It looks odd to have black chasuble and a white pall. Do you believe that a black funeral pall in the Novus Ordo funeral rites is legitimate? How about the pall used over the catafalque during the Novus Ordo All Souls’ Day Mass? — W.G., Petaluma, California
A: The pall, or mort-cloth, is a cloth that covers a casket or coffin from the reception of the coffin into the church and is used during the funeral. The word comes from the Latin pallium, or cloak.
Historically the original function was primordially practical in that it covered the bodies of the poor who could not afford coffins. Later they covered the casket and were also used by the wealthy. Such palls were often very rich patterned cloths in several colors and only later became predominately black.
Effectively, the use of a white pall has become quite common for funerals in recent years, above all in the United States and Canada. Its introduction was recommended in a document of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales in 1990, but I am unaware if it has been widely adopted. Its use is quite rare in Ireland and Italy as well as in most Spanish-speaking countries.
The following is said regarding the use of the pall in the Order of Christian Funerals:
“38. If it is the custom in the local community, a pall may be placed over the coffin when it is received at the church. A reminder of the baptismal garment of the deceased, the pall is a sign of the Christian dignity of the person. The use of the pall also signifies that all are equal in the eyes of God (see James 2:1-9). … Only Christian symbols may rest on or be placed near the coffin during the funeral liturgy. Any other symbols, for example, national flags, or flags or insignia of associations, have no place in the funeral liturgy.
“132. Any national flags or the flags or insignia of associations to which the deceased belonged are to be removed from the coffin at the entrance to the church. They may be replaced after the coffin has been taken from the church.”
Rules regarding the color of the pall are not mentioned, and, in this sense, the use of a black or violet pall is not contrary to the norms. However, as the rite mentions that the pall is a symbol of baptism, it would seem incongruous to use black to represent this sacrament.
Admittedly this is a relatively new meaning given to the pall whose original function, as seen above, was primordially practical. Only later were symbolic meanings developed.
Representing baptism and the resurrection are certainly valid meanings, and so white can always be used and is indeed generally recommended.
The second meaning for using the pall, that of equality before God, is also a pastoral recommendation that avoids ostentation at the moment of a funeral through the use of elaborate and expensive caskets.
The liturgy office of the Canadian bishops’ conference has this interesting comment to make about the use of the pall:
“If we listen carefully to the texts used at a funeral liturgy, we discover that there are several references made to the baptism of the person who is now deceased. One reference occurs at the very beginning of the liturgy, during the rite of the reception of the body. To emphasize the importance of the person’s baptism, the Church in Canada encourages the use of a pall at the funeral liturgy. This pall is to be placed on the coffin during the rite of reception of the body by family members, friends, or by parish ministers. This pall is a reminder of the white baptismal garment, a sign of the Christian dignity of the person. Just as the new Christian was clothed in the white garment when he or she became a member of the Church, the coffin is covered with a white cloth as the person enters into a new life in the resurrection of Jesus. Covering the coffin is a way to make a statement about the identity of the deceased; it proclaims that the greatest thing that can be said about the deceased person is that he or she is a sister or brother of Christ, a member of the Church. The pall is also a sign of hope, of the resurrection, of new life beyond this life, a banner that points to a continued relationship to the deceased person in the time to come. Its use also signifies that in the eyes of God all are equal (Order of Christian Funerals, no. 38). It might also be said that it is the white cloth itself that is the symbol; it does not need to have any symbols added to it to explain or add to what it means. This identity of the deceased person as a Christian is considered by the Church to be fundamental and primary, and it is the focus in a special way. For this reason the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals says that only Christian symbols may be on or near the coffin during the funeral liturgy. Flags and insignia of associations, even Christian associations, should be placed elsewhere, or at least taken off the coffin for the liturgy.”
This is fairly typical of diocesan guidelines in many areas of the United States and Canada. For example, one U.S. diocese adds some other details:
“A funeral pall may be used, covering the casket completely. The pall is white if it is seen as representing the baptismal robe. It may be adorned with Christian symbols, and may incorporate other colors appropriate for funerals. The placing of the pall may be carried out by family members or friends at the beginning of the funeral Mass, accompanied by the lighting of the Paschal Candle and placing appropriate objects on the casket, for example: a Bible, a rosary, crucifix, flowers.
“For Funeral Masses with military honors for United States military personnel, active duty or retired, it is customary that the casket enter and exit the church draped in the flag of the United States. The flag is removed upon entry so that the casket may be sprinkled with holy water and the pall placed for the Funeral Liturgy as a reminder of the baptism of the deceased. At the end of the liturgy recessional, the pall is removed and the flag is once again draped over the casket.”
The above-mentioned document from the bishops of England and Wales even has some advice for funeral directors regarding coffin design influenced by the use of the pall:
“Despite long-standing tradition that a raised crucifix has been an integral fixture on most coffins used at R.C. funerals, it is envisaged, in future, that the coffin may be covered by an unadorned white pall and that, as part of the service, a crucifix/ cross and/or bible may be placed on top. This would seem to indicate a flat surface. If a white pall (a large white cloth used to cover the coffin) is used, funeral directors may be asked to help fold it after its removal at the end of the funeral service Because a white pall and/or a cross or bible may be put on the coffin at the beginning of the service, we would ask that any other covering (e.g. flags or flowers/ wreaths) be removed at the church door. These may be replaced after leaving the church.”
The catafalque mentioned by our reader is a pall-covered, coffin-shaped structure that was used for Masses for the Dead celebrated after burial to simulate the presence of the deceased. It was also used on All Souls’ Day, November 2. This use of the catafalque was abolished in the late 1960s and is no longer permitted in the ordinary form of the Roman rite. This was noted by the U.S. bishops’ conference in its appendix to the 1975 version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
“Although the rite of final commendation at the catafalque or pall is excluded, it is permitted to celebrate the funeral service, including the commendations, in those cases where it is physically or morally impossible for the body of the deceased person to be present (November 1970).”
The absolution and commendation at the catafalque still forms part of the extraordinary form, and its use is proper in that context.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.