The Catholic liturgy is rich in symbols, including the use of various colors. We know that when we see the priest dressed in a white vestment, for example, the Mass theme will celebrate purity, hope, & new life—like Christmas, Easter, feasts of Jesus, Mary, & saints who weren’t martyrs. When we see the color of a red chasuble or chalice veil, we’ll recall the heroism of a martyr who shed his/her red blood or perhaps recognize the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Green symbolizes new growth, like the spring and summer crops; rose symbolizes a lighter side of a penitential season; black expresses solidarity with those who mourn; violet/purple expresses the royalty of Christ & our penitential preparation to meet the King of mercy.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (preface to the book we use at the altar) states in #346 that the liturgical color for funerals is normally violet. Often it is used at papal funeral Masses, though curiously red was used for that of St. John Paul II. White or black may be used with special permission in the United States to express the resurrection, but with caution, so as to not offend those who are mourning (#39 from the Order for Christian Funerals). Historically, early Christians adopted violet as a way to symbolize Christ’s royalty. This occurred because Roman emperors had used rare purple marble called porphyry for their buildings and prohibited it elsewhere. This is why the soldiers clothed Christ in purple and mocked him as the “king of the Jews” (Mk 15:17). Like a president can pardon someone on death row, Christ the King can pardon our loved one. So when we see a purple stole around a priest’s neck, we recall the generous mercy of Christ our King who loves us! Though funerals are often celebrations of the life of our loved ones, we must not lose our Catholic tradition of also praying for them (James 5:16, 2 Maccabees 12:46). And it just fits with the Divine Mercy devotion—which I love!
Finally, the promise of eternal life in Baptism is symbolized by the white pall draped over the casket to symbolize being “clothed in Christ” (Gal. 3:8) as well as the Easter candle shining like a beacon in the darkness to remind us of the triumph of Christ’s resurrection. Our Altar Society has graciously helped to acquire a special new violet vestment with white brocade (matching the pall)—containing both of these important sentiments, praying for the King of mercy to take our loved one into the light and peace of heaven.