As an old ‘member’ of Jesus College, Cambridge, I am entitled to wear the college tie, which has alternate bright red and black stripes. And wear it I do – particularly at funerals. Indeed, in all the many hundreds of funerals I have taken over the years, I have always worn the college tie. Not surprisingly it has not always been the same tie I bought in 1963 when I first went up to Cambridge. Ties do wear out – I think I am now onto my third tie!
From this you will deduce that I do not wear a clerical collar at funerals, or indeed on any other occasion. Indeed, it is a little-known fact that the clerical collar was only invented in 1865 – and not by an Anglican or a Catholic priest but by a Scottish Presbyterian minister. To my mind clerical collars are unhelpful for they set ministers apart from those they serve – hence my preference for a tie (although I guess that some might argue that in today’s increasingly informal society even wearing a tie can set us apart from others!)
But to go back to my old college tie. I think it is appropriate to wear at a funeral because of its black stripes. Just last week I took two funerals where most of the mourners were not church-goers, and as a result most were of the most were wearing black ties. To have worn a bright red tie on such an occasion would have seemed strange to many of the mourners, if not even a little disrespectful. For in our Western culture, black has long been a sign of mourning, which goes back to the days of the Roman empire when people wore the so-called toga pulla, made of dark-coloured wool. Black represents sadness, pain and grief.
Yet, of course, for Christians, death, ‘the last enemy’, has been destroyed (1 Corinthians 15.26). For us, as a result of the resurrection of Jesus, death has lost its ‘sting’ (1 Corinthians 15.56) and is but the door into eternal life. It is because of the Christian hope that I there like to wear my old college tie with its red stripes. The red symbolises that along with the pain and grief there is hope.
As a result, precisely because the difference that Jesus makes to living and to dying, many Christians prefer to come to a funeral wearing bright clothes. In the words of a poem by Gertrud Knevels:
Shall I wear mourning for my soldier dead –
I, a believer? Rather give me red.
Or give me royal purple for the King
At whose high court my love is visiting.
Dress me in green for growth, for life made new
For skies his dear feet walk, dress me in blue.
In white for his pure soul. Deck me in gold
For all the glory his new rank doth hold.
In all earth gardens blooms no hue too bright
To dress me for my love who walks in light.
However, to my mind the total doing away with black, is unrealistic. For where there is a death of a loved one, there is always loss – even for Christians. We may not ‘grieve as those who have no hope’ (Ephesians 2.12), but we still do grieve. To refuse to face up to the pain of death is a nonsense. Grief is part of the cost of loving and is the normal response to the loss of a significant person in our lives. I find it significant that Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11.35). Not to express our grief is to invite all kinds of psychological complications. In the words of the Turkish proverb: ‘He that conceals his grief finds no remedy for it’. In such a context wearing a bright red tie is unhelpful. Instead, wearing my old college tie, with both its bright red and black stripes seems to me to get the balance right.