Our Final Garment: The Story of a Parish and a Funeral Pall

April 30, 2007

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Eternal life in Christ is the hope of every Christian.  At a funeral liturgy, Christians come together believing that our beloved sister or brother now shares in the resurrection of Christ and is present with us in the mystical Body of Christ.  In the modern funeral liturgy, we demonstrate this belief by covering the casket with a white cloth, or funeral pall, the final garment of the baptized and a symbol of Christian dignity and equality.

As a garment of the baptized, the pall is white but may have colored borders or a simple design running down the center.  Is there a way to use this design opportunity to express the hope of resurrection and to be symbolic of the universal and local church?  Can the design of the pall help mourners move through sorrow and grief to hope for new life?

The opportunity to consider these questions arose at Most Holy Trinity Church, a large multicultural parish in San Jose, CA, which celebrates Mass in four languages each weekend.  The number of funerals per month averages 8 - 12, and double funerals are not uncommon.  Sacristan Josie Salazar, caretaker of the old palls, bemoaned their condition, but no funds were available to replace them.  What was the parish to do?

Fortunately, a newly ordained Jesuit with training in design and architecture arrived at Most Holy Trinity.  Gilbert Sanghera, SJ (now a liturgical space consultant) is a visionary thinker who has dedicated himself to enhancing the liturgical life of a community through good design.  His idea was to hold a collection specifically for new palls, which he would commission me to make.  Knowing that I use fabrics from around the world to symbolize the universality of the church, he collected fabrics from the parishioners that represented something of their various heritages.  He felt that if parishioners contributed actual fabrics, they would naturally contribute the needed funds.  In short order, fabric and funds were forthcoming for two matching adult palls and one child-size pall, and I moved on to the design phase.

Because movement is such an important element of the funeral liturgy, I wanted the design to evoke movement, as well.  My inspiration came from a vestment I had been commissioned to make a few years previously.  This vestment had a swooping central panel with a wide area of black and dark purple at the bottom that moved through fuchsia and orange, and ended in a white point at the neck.  Although originally made as a funeral vestment, it spoke so strongly of resurrection that the priest who had commissioned it began wearing it during the Easter season also.  Those buried with in Christ in baptism also hope for a share in His resurrection.

My design would have two swoops, beginning at either end and meeting in the middle in a white cross.  Since I would need a range of light and dark values, as well as many hues, this would enable me to use many of the provided fabrics as possible, mixed in with my own fabrics from around the world (although note that we were careful to say I would select from what I was given).  While I had asked for certain kinds of fabrics, I was given one anomaly, with the instruction that it had to be used in all three palls.  It turned out to be a scrap of clothing carefully kept by a bereaved mother whose daughter had worn it at the time of her murder; in other words, a relic.  As things so often go, the design improved through adaptation to include it.

Today, the vibrant colors and blending of cultures of these palls bring color and life to funerals in this modern church.  They fit this parish, whose funeral liturgies might begin outside with folk dancing and a Mariachi band.  They mean so much that they are even laid out as altar cloths at Easter and the month of November.

Can something as simple as a pall move us to hope?  My answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Pamela T. Hardiman is a liturgical fiber artist based in Farmington, CT.  She is the author of Raise the Banners High!: Making and Using Processional Banners (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2002) ISBN-10: 1568543689; ISBN-13: 978-1568543680.

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