Wearing black at funerals

The tradition of wearing black for mourning is well established in England. Queen Victoria, for example, wore nothing but black for the rest of her life after the death of Prince Albert. Until recently, mourners at Church of England funerals were expected to wear black; as a result most middle-aged Englishmen own a plain black tie to wear at funerals.

Although most people wear black to Orthodox funerals there is no rule that says we have to. Dressing modestly is more important than wearing something black. Actually, in most Orthodox parishes the clergy wear white vestments at funerals like they do on Pascha night reminding us that that Christ destroyed death by His Resurrection.

The clergy wear white because, in the words of St. Paul, we look for ‘that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity’ (Titus. 2:13). When we die, we do so ‘in the hope of eternal life’ (Titus 1:2), and when we grieve, we do so enlightened by our faith in the Resurrection, but not like ‘the rest who have no hope’ (1 Thess. 4:13).

The tradition of wearing black for funerals is still quite common in non-Orthodox churches, but most have abandoned their traditional funeral service and replaced it with a ‘celebration of the life of…’ event. These feature the deceased's favourite music, non-Christian poems, fancy dress and even customized coffins in football colours.

Colin Brazier’s recent article in The Spectator put into words what many of us feel about these modern funeral services. Brazier’s wife, Jo, died recently of cancer aged 55 leaving six children but the couple decided against modern gimmicks for the funeral service. In his article Brazier points out that dumbing down funerals is particularly unfair on children, and robs them of a chance to grieve. The Orthodox would also say that it robs everyone of a chance to pray.

Our faith in the Resurrection and our belief in Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross cannot remove our grief, but the Orthodox funeral service is not primarily about mourning, it is about praying for the soul of the newly departed. Again and again we pray that the soul of the departed may be granted rest. Personal achievements and status are not important – the only thing that matters is the state of our soul because we all shall to answer for our deeds at the Judgement of God.

The Orthodox funeral service is not a personalized ‘celebration of life’; the funeral service is identical for every layperson because we are united together in the Church. We have one faith and one goal – to give a good answer at the Judgement.

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