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|“We mourn in black” – (Shakespeare)
Mourning is to display the conventional
signs of grief after someone’s death. The
word is also used to describe a cultural
complex of behaviors in which the
bereaved participate in, or are expected
to participate. The symbols or outward
manifestations of grief, as in the use of
symbolic colors in dress, the draping of
building or doors, and the half-masting of
flags as examples of mourning. To the left
is a listing of the topics discussed in this
* Social Customs and Dress
* Western Europe to the 19th century
* United States
* United Kingdom
* Continental Europe
* State and Official Mourning
* Modern Customs
* Other Customs
* Religious Customs
Social Customs and Dress
Western Europe to the 19th Century
The custom of wearing unadorned black clothing for mourning dates back at
least to the Roman Empire, when the toga pulla made of dark-colored wool
was worn during periods of mourning.
Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, distinctive mourning was worn for
general as well as personal loss; after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of
Huguenots in France, Elizabeth I of England and her court are said to have
dressed in full mourning to receive the French Ambassador.
The color of mourning in medieval Europe was white rather than black. This
tradition survived in Spain until the end of the fifteenth century. It was the
custom of the Queens of France to wear white veils for mourning; this is the
origin of the white mourning wardrobe created by Norman Hartnell for a later
Queen Elizabeth in 1938.
The wearing of white is also practiced in the Orient, to show sorrow for a
Mourning generally followed English forms. In the antebellum South, with
social mores that rivaled those of England, mourning was just as strictly
The loss of the male head of the family had serious ramifications for American
Indian widows; mourning among some tribes included the extreme act of cutting
off of a finger.
By the 19th century, mourning behavior in England had developed into a
complex set of rules, particularly among the upper classes. Women bore the
greatest burden of these customs. They involved wearing heavy, concealing,
black clothing, and the use of heavy veils of black crêpe. The entire ensemble
was colloquially known as widow's weeds (from the Old English "Waed"
Special caps and bonnets, usually in black or other dark colors, went with
these ensembles. There was even special mourning jewelry, often made of jet.
The wealthy could also wear cameos or lockets designed to hold a lock of hair
or some similar relic of the deceased.
Widows were expected to wear special clothes to indicate that they were in
mourning for up to four years after the death. To remove the costume earlier
was thought disrespectful to the decedent, and if the widow was still young and
attractive, sexually promiscuous. Those subject to the rules were slowly
allowed to re-introduce conventional clothing at different time periods; stages
were known by such terms as "full mourning", "half mourning", and similar
Friends, acquaintances and employees wore mourning to a greater or lesser
degree depending on their relationship with the deceased. In general, servants
wore black armbands when there had been a death in the household.
Formal mourning culminated during the reign of Queen Victoria. Victoria
herself may have had much to do with the practice, due to her long and
conspicuous grief over the death of her husband, Prince Albert. She started an
enduring fashion trend with her decision to wear buttons made of jet (an ancient
ornamental stone) on all of her mourning dresses. After showing her fondness
for this semi-precious stone, her subjects began to imitate her and create jet
jewelry for mourning wear.
Although fashions began to be more functional and less restrictive for the
succeeding Edwardians, appropriate dress for men and women, including that
for the period of mourning, was still strictly proscribed and rigidly adhered to.
The rules were gradually relaxed and acceptable practice for both sexes
became to dress in dark colors for up to a year after a death in the family.
Portugal, in rural areas widows will wear black for the rest of their lives. The
immediate family members of the deceased will wear black for an extended
period of time.
Bark cloth, a rough traditional fabric , was worn in some communities to
denote that family members were in mourning. White garments are also used;
following the advent of Christianity, black garments were worn, following
In Ethiopia, an edir (or iddir ) is a traditional community organization in which
the members assist each other during the mourning process. Members pay dues
to cover the funeral expenses of everyone in the entire group. Upon the death of
an edir member, or someone in the member's family, the entire edir is obligated
to mourn with the family in the member's house for three full days.
State & Official Mourning
State mourning, or in the case of monarchies, court mourning, refers to displays
of mourning behavior on the death of a public figure or member of a royal
The degree and duration of public mourning is generally decreed by a protocol
officer. It was not unusual for the British court to declare that all citizens
should wear full mourning for a specified period after the death of the monarch,
or that the members of the court should wear full- or half-mourning for an
extended period. On the death of Queen Victoria, (January 1901), the Canada
Gazette published an "extra" edition announcing that court mourning would
continue until January 24, 1902, and directing the public to wear deep
mourning until March 6, 1901, and half mourning until April 17, 1901.
The black-and-white costumes designed by Cecil Beaton for the Royal Ascot
sequence in My Fair Lady are inspired by the "Black Ascot" of 1910 when the
court was in mourning for Victoria's son, Edward VII.
All over the world, states usually declare a period of official mourning at the
demise of their Head of state. The signs may vary, but usually include the
lowering or posting half-mast of flags on public buildings.
An example of this was at the death of the Emir of Kuwait in January 2006, a
40 day mourning period was declared.
On the other hand, the principle of continuity of the state must be respected. The
principle is reflected in the French saying "Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi! "
("The king is dead, long live the king!"): regardless of the formalities if
mourning, power has to be handed on; if the succession is uncontested, that is
best done immediately. Yet a short interruption of work in the civil service may
result from one or more days closing the offices, especially on the day of the
Mourning attire became less customary after the mid-twentieth century, by
which time it had already been determined that mourning was not to be worn in
the business arena.
It is still customary, though not as universal, to indicate mourning through
somber, semi-formal dress, particularly at the funeral and among the family and
close friends of the deceased. As such, men often wear a suit and tie, while a
woman may wear a dark-colored, long-sleeved dress or pantsuit.
A few modern customs have evolved, for example the use of sunglasses in
order to hide tear-swollen eyes.
Mourning is used as a statement of respect, solidarity or commemoration by a
particular group in an unusual circumstance. For instance:
• The wearing of black armbands (also known as mourning bands) by the
Israeli Olympic team in 1976 to commemorate the attack on the team during the
1972 Olympic Games.
• A sports team may wear black armbands, or affix a black stripe to their
uniforms, for a specified time period following the death of an owner, coach,
teammate or (if the decedent is a high school student), classmate.
• A community wearing special-colored ribbons on a designated day or for a
particular time period. For instance, the wearing of red, white and blue
following the September 11th attacks.
• Observing a "moment of silence" and/or flying flags at half-staff following a
death. This most frequently happens in conjunction with national periods of
mourning (such as after the death of a former President of the United States or
other notable leader)(See State and Official mourning, above). However, flags
are sometimes lowered to half-mast in other circumstances, such as after the
death of a high school student or noted local figure; such circumstances vary
widely and are usually influenced by local customs.
• Local-, state- and federal-uniformed employees who wear badges to place a
black band around the badge when a fellow employee has been killed in the
line of duty.
Mourning clothes of the style of times past are currently staging a minor
comeback and are popular items of vintage or gothic clothing.
Shiv'ah is a Jewish mourning practice in which people adjust their behavior as
an expression of their bereavement. In the West, typically, mirrors are covered
to indicate a lack of interest in personal vanity, and the bereaved person dress
simply and sit on boxes rather than chairs when receiving the condolences of
visitors. English speakers use the expression "to sit Shiv'ah".
The European social forms described above are in general the Christian
religious expressions transferred to the greater community.
In addition to personal mourning for a deceased loved one; Christian Churches
often go into mourning symbolically during the period of Lent to commemorate
the sacrifice and death of Jesus . Customs vary among the denominations and
include the covering or removal of statuary, icons and paintings, and use of
special liturgical colors, such as violet/purple, during Lent and Holy Week.
In more formal congregations, parishioners also dress according to specific
forms during Holy Week, particularly on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday,
where it is still common to wear black or somber dress or, as mentioned, the
liturgical color purple.
Hinduism considers death and birth to be connected with ritual impurity. This
impurity is more severe during the death than at birth, so a death requires 12
days of ritual impurity (applied to all the members of the direct family) a birth
only 10 days (applied only to the parents of the new-born child).
Hindu mourning begins immediately after the cremation of the body and ends on
the morning of the thirteenth day. Traditionally the body is cremated within 24
hours after death, however the cremations are not held after sunset and before
Immediately after the death an oil lamp is lit near the deceased and this lamp is
kept burning for the first three days of the 12 day mourning period. During these
mourning days, the immediate blood family is considered to be in a state of
extreme ritual impurity and bound by several rules. They must not touch or go
near the family shrine, must not enter a temple or any sacred place, must not
take part in any other religious functions (except funerals), must not recite or
read from the holy scriptures, must not visit other family members or friends,
must not attend social functions like marriages, parties etc. On the day on which
the death has occurred, the family must not cook as it is considered to be
inappropriate to light the family hearth when one of the family member is being
cremated, hence usually close family and friends will provide food for the
If the death has occurred away from home and there is a delay in the cremation
process, the family has to follow these rules even though the formal mourning
period has not actually commenced, the actual mourning period of 12 days
begins immediately after the cremation ceremony of the dead has been
White (the color of purity) is also the color of mourning and many will wear
white during the mourning period. If a religious festival falls during this period
of mourning, the family cannot celebrate the festival as they are in a state of
ritual impurity. It is prohibited for other family members or friends to eat or
drink in the house of the family who are in mourning.
Death is not seen as the final "end", but is seen as a turning point in the
seemingly endless journey of the indestructible "atman " or the soul through
innumerable bodies of animals and people. Hence Hinduism prohibits
excessive mourning or lamentation upon death, as this can hinder the easy
passage of the departed soul towards is journey ahead.
On the morning of the thirteenth day, a Shraddh ceremony is performed. The
family wake up before sunrise and have a purifying bath. The main ceremony
involves a fire sacrifice , in which offerings are given to the ancestors and to
other gods, to ensure the deceased has a peaceful afterlife. Typically after the
ceremony, the family cleans and washes all the idols in the family shrine and
flowers, fruits, water and purified food is offered to the gods. Now the family
is ready to break the period of mourning and ritual impurity and return back to
daily life. Usually a modest rangoli or a kolam (decorative design)is drawn
outside the house (which is erased the next day) and the family members visit a
temple, the first time after the death. Generally the period of subdued mourning
lasts for full 12 months, during which the family may not celebrate festivals
like Diwali , attend marriages and parties. The mourning period generally
comes to an end on the first anniversary on which the annual Shraddh ceremony
Since the funeral rites are so essential, Hindus without a son to perform them
have been known to adopt one, usually a younger male relative.
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