|“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 section.
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 person’s
Mourning generally followed English forms. In the antebellum South, with social
mores that rivaled those of England, mourning was just as strictly observed.
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" meaning "garment").
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 terms.
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
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 European custom.
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.
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|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 family.
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 state funeral. (see: State Funerals)
|Official & State Mourning|
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
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
• 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.
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 •
Observing a "moment of silence" and/or flying flags at half-staff following a death.
noted local figure; such circumstances vary widely and are usually influenced by local
• 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.
|Modern & Additional Customs|Religious Customs
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
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 sunrise.
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 mourning family.
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 completed.
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
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 is conducted.
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.
(see: Religious Traditions)
|Mourning for Various Religions|
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