Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Mourning: the conventions

Nowadays mourning seems to have dissappeared, the funeral happens and life returns to normal and the dead are rarely spoken of again. The bereaved are expected to pull themselves together and get on with life.
As a priest it is pretty obvious this can have pretty serious effects on people's psychological health, if there is no public outlet for grieving it tends to have a greater internal effect, it gets bottled up. I can't help but think a bit of black crepe might save a great deal on counselling fees.
Traditionally the Church gave a lead. Some places on the continent the catafalque was rarely taken down and black rather than green was the default colour of vestments.
I have been told that the current vesting options for funerals: black, purple and white were introduced to mark the gradation of different stages of mouning.

    • Black the traditional colour for the actual Requiem,
      purple for the months-mind, first anniversary etc.
      white as was traditional for a child, and if appropriate to mark the end of formal mourning.

Apparently it was never the Church's intention to force white and the Glorias of Easterday on those who were in black, weeping and muttering the De Profundis.

Roman Christendom has a very interesting post on the traditional way to mourning, for how long:

for a widow 2 to 2 and a half years and a widow did not enter society for a year (although she could re-marry after 1 year and 1 day if financially necessary);
for a widower 2 years;
for a parent 2 years;
for children (if above ten years old) 2 years;
for children below that age 3 to 6 months;
for an infant 6 weeks and upward;
for siblings 6 to 8 months;
for grandparents 6 months;
for uncles and aunts 3 to 6 months;
for cousins, great aunts and uncles, or aunts and uncles related by marriage from 6 weeks to 3 months;
for more distant relatives or friends from 3 weeks upward.
He also speaks about mouning bands, weeping veils, when to wear mourning jewelry, remarriage and of course the inappropriateness of attending balls.


Felix Randal said...

I've found an enormous difference between England and Ireland in the way funerals are done. In Ireland, the removal of the remains is a big affair - the casket is usually open, and there's often an opportunity to touch the hands of the deceased, or to kiss them. As well, funerals are big community events, rather than family occasions (as they seem to be in England).

Delia said...

Very interesting post. I wonder when mourning went out of fashion and why? Incidentally, that's Queen Mary in the middle of the picture. A Farm Street Jesuit once told me that he was pretty sure that she was a (?deathbed) convert, as was Edward VII. Does anyone else know anything about this?

Essayez said...

Dear Father Ray,
My dear wife died on Sunday September 7th. 2008, and I (with the help of my children) have just completed the arrangements for her funeral Mass. Today is the first time have been on line since Sunday and the first site I looked at was your blog and it was something of a surprise. The Celebrant (what an appropriate title) is a Traditionalist (90 and still working) but I do think we still have still got the original vestments but he will wear black. We are also going to revive the old custom of praying at the end of Mass for the next person in the congregation to die. I was a trifle nonplussed to learn that my formal mourning must last 2 years, I don't think my wife would approve!

Fr Ray Blake said...

My prayers for the soul of your wife and for you too.

The funeral rites sound just right.

I suppose in the past mourning lasted long enough to change from grief to boredom.

GOR said...

Yes, we have come a long way from the mourning mores of yore - black vestments, De Profundis, Dies Irae, prayers for the deceased, Month's Mind, Anniversary Masses - not to mention visits to the Church on All Souls Day to gain indulgences for the Holy Souls.

In Ireland years ago you had a three-day 'Wake' at the deceased's house. While we often hear that Irish wakes were an occasion for drinking (that, too!), many prayers and rosaries were said throughout the period. It was also a sobering reminder that we are all mortal and our turn will come!

The door of the house had a 'Crepe' on it - a black bow with the name of the deceased on it. All who passed by knew it was a house in mourning. Close relatives wore black for an extended period. Widowers and sons of the deceased wore a black diamond sewed to the sleeve of their jackets for some months (6 - 12...?) afterwards. Widows wore black for 6 months to a year. Black ties, black dresses, black veils.

While I'm not in favor of overdoing the mourning period, I do regret the lack of emphasis on praying for the repose of the soul of the deceased. The post Vat II white vestments and 'Resurrection' Masses have led people to believe that everyone who dies goes straight to heaven!

The obnoxious 'eulogies' extol the virtues of the deceased - "a good man/woman, helped others, was kind to children and animals etc. etc." With the result that after the interment everyone goes home happy that 'John' or 'Mary' is now in heaven and we can forget about them. Done deal. Back to normal.

We need to get back to remembering our sinfulness and the need, not just for repentance, but for reparation. And if we don't make sufficient reparation in this life (who does...? who knows...?) we will have to make it in Purgatory.

If the Saints, with their heroic virtues and life's labors, were not assured of immediate entrance into Heaven - or of getting to Heaven, period - why should we feel we are different?

Memento mori!

Fr Ray Blake said...

I am sure you are right, in this post, I am more concerned with depriving peopple of the "right" to mourn in public, and foreshortening it.
"Resurrection Masses" are psychologically unhealthy.

PeterHWright said...

What an excellent post !

I couldn't agree more about the need for mourning, and black is the colour of mourning.

I have seen the so called Mass of the Resurrection, with white vestments. It is wholly inappropriate.

When I die, hopefully fortified with the rites of the Holy Church, I would wish people of their charity to pray for the repose of my soul as a sinner.

alban said...

Fr Ray: I think your point about having the right to mourn is very apt.

Certainly, because of Christ's victory over the grave, we believe in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. Yet, it is a truly natural reaction to weep for when someone has left us. We weep not so much for the departed as for ourselves who have been left bereft, our hearts rent asunder. To deny mourning is to belittle the bonds that entwine our lives, hearts and souls. Mourning is essential for a healthy psyche; psychologists worth their salt will say as much.

The chemical make up of tears shed in sorrow is different from those produced in laughter or due to peeling an onion. Those poured forth in sadness have markedly more leucine enkaphalin (a natural pain killer) which is why people feel better after weeping.

Incidentally, in some Far Eastern countries the traditional colour of mourning is white. Red is traditional for joy, celebration and blessing (hence the red envelopes, containing money, given to children during the Chinese New Year festivities).

gemoftheocean said...

Prayers for you and your wife and family, Essayez.

gemoftheocean said...

I'd heartily agree with the need for praying for the deceased, anniversary Masses for the deceased etc.

Whether to "go white, black, purple" I think depends on the culture, and what works for the family. Choice is good, I think.

About 35 years ago, my parents and I visited Hawaii for the first time. We'd been to the Punch Bowl [The extinct volcano, upon which a Veteran's cemetery was built] and were struck by the "Aloha" attire of some of the graveside services we could see in the distance. I wouldn't want the priest to be wearing an "Aloha" vestment :-D, but the three of us thought that we loved the spirit at graveside. When my mother's time came I had her dressed in fuscia, as it was one of her best colors. She'd suffered much on earth, and truth be told I think a lot of her purgatory time was worked out on earth. Dying was a merciful release for her. We went with white, and the resurrection Mass. Among the mementos I buried with her, were a photo of the three of us taken in Hawaii with Diamond head in the background. She'd have liked that.

My dad's protestant relatives wouldn't have understood where we were coming from for his funeral as in some ways it was a little more somber, but still fitting.

When I go, it will be a release for me, and I'll be happy, if lucky to crawl through the gates of purgatory. I'll be happy, because I know that eventually, I'll get sprung. All prayers for the repose of my soul most welcome.

On this I think each family should go with their gut instincts for that person. A combination of what they would have liked, and the needs of the family.

Hopefully the individuals being buried are also a bit sensitive to the family who must mourn them.

A friend of mine has parents who wish to be cremated with the remains scattered at sea. The cremation part (though allowed) is distressing enough for my friend, that she can handle but she really can't understand how her parents, practicing Catholics, want to go against the church with the "scattered at sea" part. I do pray when there time comes they'll have reconsidered on that point.

It is not uncommon, BTW, to see a notice in Hawaii in the funeral announcements to see "Aloha attire."

On these things I'd ride with the tide and go with the flow of whatever the deceased family felt right.

For my own part when I go, I don't want to be cremated, and I'd rather take the white, as I can't wait to slip these surly bonds. If you want to show up in black, white, floral etc. whatever floats your boat and makes you feel good is fine by me! And by all means, pray for my soul!!

GOR said...

True Father, the 'right' to mourn should be preserved and respected.

Today - especially here in the US - death has to be 'sanitized'. Funeral parlors resemble country mansions. Some even provide catering for the 'funeral banquet'...! The body is embalmed and the deceased is made to look better than he or she did in life. "Doesn't Aunt Mary look great?" No she doesn't, she's dead! What you see is cosmetology taken to extremes. There is a reason we refer to someone's 'remains'. The soul has departed and the body will decay, despite modern technology.

But what I am opposed to is 'extreme mourning' - where people go into paroxysms of grief, falling to the ground, writhing, draping themselves over the coffin, etc.

Yes we are saddened when we lose a loved one and need time to adjust to the loss. But when you come down to it, who are we sad for - ourselves or the deceased?

Through our faith we know that this life is passing and we are - or should be - preparing for our eternal life. Those who have gone before, are already there - please God - or in process of getting there via Purgatory.

So yes, mourn, but not as without hope, but with faith. If they are "blessed who mourn..." they will also "be comforted" - and our faith is our comfort.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Conventions tend to mitigate extremes. Be behave in extreme ways when society fails to identify a via media.

Paulinus said...

AsI blogged earlier this year, some hippy in the 70s binned the parish's black vestments, so we put together and got a bargain at Luzar. we're saving up for a black cope for the reception of the body etc.

I'm incensed that someone took it upon themselves to ditch vetsments paid for with the pennies of the poor.


Physiocrat said...

When someone close has died is not the time to have to start thinking about what arrangements should be made. It is precisely when a time-honoured set of protocols is required. But that is really true of all the liturgy and the events that it celebrates.

Jane said...

Whilst I agree with you Father, that we should be able to mourn publicly, I think mourning lasts as long as the person is experiencing the loss, and that is for ever. In the early days we should be allowed to express our raw grief without worrying about embarrassing anyone. The trouble is that these days even in the Catholic Church there is this emphasis on 'celebrating the earthly life'. One is made to feel cranky if one suggests by obvious anguish that the greater concern is for one's loved one's immortal soul.

I've been shying off this one all day. Anyway when my mother died here in rural France, she was brought back from the hospital and laid out in her bedroom here at home. The undertaker knew we were Catholic. He asked me for a table, linen cloth and candles. These he placed at the foot of her bed and supplied gilded basin of Holy water and an aspergillum. In the two days that followed before the Requiem, there came to our house a steady procession of villagers to enter the bedroom, pay their respects and sprinkle her. This was in 1997 and I pray the practice will not have died out before I go.

The whole village turned out for the Requiem of 'La Meme Anglaise', including the Maire who sent a wreath. The church bell tolled all the way up the road to the cemetery. Everyone who had been at the Mass followed in procession, assisted at the burial and returned chez nous for champagne and gateaux. I remember saying to her in my head, 'Goodness, Mummy, you'd never have had a send off like this in England.'

The other habit they have here is an offertory at the head of the coffin.. It's probably the result of the poverty of the peasants here in the past. But everybody puts somethinf in processing round the coffin and this helps to pay for the funeral.

AS for the photo of Queen Mary, Quueen Mother, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret., It stunned me when I first saw in in the newspaper when I was a child. We all sat cross-legged in the school hall and listened to the funeral of George VI on a utility radio in pin-drop silence.


Anonymous said...

This is a great topic to post on, Fr. I have been to quite a few funerals in the past year, which all respected the deceased persons wish that: no-one wear black, but only bright colours as if going to a party; that everyone treats it as an occasion for joy; there be eulogies aplenty before the final blessing (This is in a Requiem Mass); that some ballad-type pop-song must be played on a CD as the procession leaves the church and that everyone "celebrates" afterwards. Code for: get drunk. I think.

It has got me so worried, that I am concerned that my own funeral may be hijacked one day by the same mentality unless I make some specific requests beforehand. So I have:

Could everyone please wear black. Anyone trying to get into the church in party-wear will be asked to nip home and change. I would like as much visible grief as possible, even if you didn`t much like me. Boxes of (black) Kleenex will be discreetly placed at the end of each bench in order to facilitate as much sobbing as possible. I would like "God of Mercy and Compassion, Look with pity upon me.." played at the Entrance for the Requiem Mass. Anyone who changes the words of the chorus to be Politically Correct will be asked to stop singing. There are to be no eulogies. They have no place in a Mass. Instead, please all spend five minutes in silence praying for my poor soul, and for your own as well while you`re at it. Anyone, including the priest, who dares say at any point that I must surely be in heaven, looking down at us all, enjoying my eternal reward, is to be stopped. I don`t mind how. ANYONE, please stand up and say with dignity, but very loudly "I`m sorry, but I knew her quite well, and to be frank, she was a nightmare. She'd like us all to know that she needs our intercession, sacrifices, prayers and sufferings to enable her to get to heaven. It could take some time."
The Mass readings for the day are to be used. No specially chosen ones thankyou. I want to go out WITH The Church, not in my own canoe.

There is, naturally, to be lots of incense, flowers, and Mass Offerings for the repose of my soul. I would also appreciate it if those who are in a state of grace to be able to receive Holy Communion might consider doing so kneeling and on the tongue. Thankyou. I`m really not bothered about a Book of Condolence. The only consoling my family might need is the knowledge that Masses are being said for me. Everyone will be handed an envelope as they leave for a Mass stipend to be offered and handed to the priest. The custom of saying Masses for and praying for the dead is to be explained as well, as most people don`t seem to know about it anymore.

There is a touching Irish custom of having the "month's mind" Mass offered exactly a month after the person has died. This would be good.

Finally, I would like it if the priest would use the homily to urge everyone to get to confession regularly. Hopefully he'll be able to put it a little more tactfully than that, but that`s the gist of it.

I do feel a lot better since I laid down some parameters for that day - may it not be for a good while. These modern funerals, sorry Celebrations of Life, leave me desolate.

WHO is praying for the Holy Souls anymore ?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fr Ray Blake said...


See above, ""Anonymous" comments are always rejected."


You asked: Although this is not exactly related to this string of posts, my grandmother has died (aged 100) and I am working overseas in Amman Jordan- I am unable to go to the funeral because I can't get a flight to Britain at such short notice from here to attend her funeral. What help exactly can I expect from my parish priest here to help me mark her passing and pray for the repose of her soul?

I can see no reason why your parish priest cannot offer a Requiem Mass, even without the presence of a body. That presumably is what you would want.

If he is unable to do that, because of the number of Masses, he can offer Mass for her soul.

Physiocrat said...

While we are on this subject, Extraordinary Form for me please, black,Gregorian Chant if there are singers available. No eulogy. And if I die here in Sweden make sure they don't bring me back. There are plenty of clergy and singers here to do the EF and chant so no problem. I am planning to come back on 3 October but one never knows.

My solicitor has the same instruction.

GOR said...

Yes, Bernadette, my feelings exactly - well perhaps without the faux sobbing! At Irish Wakes years ago you had 'keening' - which might be described as 'faux sobbing'. There were even 'professional' keeners who would provide this service (suitably 'oiled' no doubt).

I would like to see a return to the Irish practice of Mass Cards instead of flowers. It was standard practice that when someone you knew died, you had a Mass offered for them. You had a priest sign a Mass Card, gave him a stipend and the Mass Card was given to the family.

In addition to being of more help to the deceased than flowers and a comfort to the family, it also served to contribute to the support of the clergy - both at home and abroad. If there were too many for the local parish to handle in a decent timeframe, the excess - stipends and intentions - were sent to priests on the Missions.

Flowers fade, but the Mass is forever!

Anonymous said...

Regarding Jane's comment:

I believe that what she describes was also an English custom; pre-reformation of course! I think I remember reading that the container of Holy Water was placed between the feet of the deceased ~ which is where that familiar euphemism for dying 'kick the bucket' comes from.

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