It is customary for people to wear black to funerals as a sign of mourning and respect. The tradition of wearing black to funerals has been accepted by western cultures for a long time. Organizing a funeral can be a very sad and sombre process.
When you wear black, you are mourning the loss of someone, and you are showing respect to the deceased and their family. It is for this reason that people wear black to funerals.
The history behind people wearing black to funerals
Americans, Europeans, Australians, and New Zealanders mourn in black, according to history. Though it’s less about spirituality, religion, or symbolism and more about fashion and wealth.
By the late 19th century, black clothing had become synonymous with mourning, such that a woman who wore black when not in mourning was looked down upon.
Ancient Roman mourners, however, wore dark-colored Togas to show their mourning since the time of the Roman Empire.
This tradition spread throughout Europe with the Roman Empire, and other cultures adopted it at funerals as well. With the arrival of the early American settlers, black mourning clothing became a symbol of the wealthy during the middle ages.
The most referenced though was British Queen Victoria. She wore a black dress to the funeral of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, and only wore black clothing thereafter.
As a result of her devotion to mourning her husband, black became a symbol of mourning across the globe, and eventually, the elite British adopted black as a mourning tradition. This later spread to neighboring countries and the rest of the world.
Colours for mourning across the world
We can learn a lot from other cultures’ funeral attire and grieving practices. Below, we discuss the various colors of mourning around the world, as well as what they represent.
Purple and Grey—Colors of Grieving
Women in Victorian England were compelled to wear mourning clothes for up to four years. However, after entering “half-mourning” a year after her husband’s death, the widow could add purple or grey garments to her wardrobe.
Formal mourning was usually reserved for the upper class before this era. However, as the middle class emerged during the industrial revolution, the practice flourished and spread throughout society.
This culture advanced in the United States, where it was embraced by numerous states.
While these customs have survived in Western Europe and the United States, other cultures and non-western religions have their rich traditions, many of which incorporate a wide range of additional mourning colours.
White- the colour of purity and rebirth
White has traditionally been associated with sadness. For many centuries and in many parts of the world, white has been the symbol of purity. White, as a sign of innocence and purity, is commonly used to distinguish the presence of youth at a funeral, whether as the deceased, a mourner, or a participant.
Women’s mourning dress, while often dominated by black, is frequently supplemented by white accessories such as caps.
The funeral procession for Armenian King Leo V featured an all-white procession. In 1393, the funeral was performed in Paris, France, where King Leo V died in exile.
Widows in indigenous Australian culture historically wore white mourning caps made of plaster, known as ‘kopis.’ The thickness of the plaster could indicate the depth of the widow’s sorrow if worn for a period ranging from a week to six months. The kopi would be placed on her husband’s grave at the end of her grieving period.
Eastern Asians dress in white mourning clothing as a symbol of purity and regeneration.
In Cambodia, where Buddhism is the official religion, people believe that when they die, they are reborn into a cycle of life. As a result, the family of a deceased person wears white during the mourning process in the expectation that their loved ones may be reborn.
White mourning, also known as deuil blanc in French, originated in the 16th century when grieving children and unmarried women wore white. The trend quickly established a norm for France’s ruling monarchs, inspiring Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) to follow suit after losing three immediate family members within 18 months.
Before her death in 1901, Queen Victoria left extremely specific instructions on how she wanted white to be used at her burial. She not only wore her white wedding veil over her face, but she also wanted white horses and a white drape over her coffin.
Wilhelmina, who had abdicated the Dutch monarchy in 1948, was accorded a white funeral in 1962 to honor her spiritual belief that worldly death was the beginning of eternal life. This has become a tradition with the Dutch royal family, as seen by Queen Juliana’s daughters all wearing white to her funeral in 2004.
Similarly, Queen Fabiola wore white to her husband’s funeral, King Baudouin I of Belgium, in 1993.
In Hindu tradition, white is the color of mourning because it represents purity.
Red – honour and respect.
Diverse civilizations assign different meanings to the color red. In China, red represents happiness and is strictly forbidden at funerals. Red has been designated as the mourning color in South Africa, commemorating the slaughter endured during the Apartheid era.
Similarly, the color red is widely associated with mourning in Ghana. Mourners wear a combination of red and black, especially if their loved one died in a traumatic manner.
It is considered a painful death when someone dies in their prime. As a result, mourners and family members wear red and black to signify their sorrow.
Mourners in Ghana, on the other hand, sometimes wear white or a combination of white and black when the deceased lived for eight decades or more. Instead of mourning a loss, family and mourners celebrate the deceased’s well-lived and fulfilling life. Women in this situation, despite being dressed in white, will nonetheless wear a distinctive black scarf to symbolize that they are in a mourning mood.
But not every family, tribe, or ethnicity follows suit.
Purple- a symbol of pain
During Holy Week, Catholics in Guatemala reenact the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Men and boys wear purple robes and hoods during the Procession of the Holy Cross on Good Friday as a gesture of sadness and a symbol of Christ’s pain and suffering.
When mourning the loss of a loved one, many devout Catholics in Brazil wear purple alongside black. Wearing purple if you are not attending a funeral can be considered rude and unfortunate, as the color has a spiritual, devotional significance.
Purple is the color of grief in Thailand, and it is reserved for widows to wear while mourning the death of their spouse, whereas other funeral mourners are supposed to wear black.
Gold – a journey to the Afterlife
In ancient Egypt, gold was connected with eternal life and the all-powerful god Ra, whose flesh was thought to be made of precious metal. As such, gold was the color of royal mourning because it was imperishable and indestructible.
The Royals and well-born ancient Egyptians were well-prepared for their voyage into the hereafter, as spectacular riches uncovered in ancient Egyptian burial chambers have shown. It was believed that after death on earth, kings and queens would ascend to deity status, with the famed gold death mask of the boy king Tutankhamun, mirroring his position in the heavens.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do you have to wear black to a funeral?
A: In short, no. When it comes to knowing what to wear to a funeral that’s not black, there are an array of alternatives that men and women can wear. Although black is the most traditional of colors, smart and dark clothing is also acceptable.
Q: Is it necessary to wear black to a funeral?
A: Because a funeral is a sombre occasion, it is best to dress in conservative colors and styles in semi-formal attire. Black is still the safest color for funeral attire, but you don’t have to wear solid black.
Q: Where did the custom of wearing black to a funeral come from?
A: Nowadays, in much of the western world, wearing black to a funeral is the most common color and is considered a sign of respect. However, the tradition dates back to the ancient Romans, when mourners would adopt a darker-colored Toga to show they were in mourning.
Q: Is it disrespectful to wear white to a funeral?
As a neutral color, white should not be considered inappropriate at most North American funerals. Though you should ask the family hosting the service when in doubt, plain, neutral colors are generally acceptable for memorials. Wearing white in conjunction with other dark tones is appropriate.
Q: What color should you not wear to a funeral?
Black is the traditional color for funeral services. It’s generally acceptable to wear non-black clothing, such as dark blue or grey. Stick with subdued colors and fabric textures so that you don’t draw attention away from the person who is being honored. Avoid red, bright pink, orange, yellow, or other bright colors.
Q: When did black become the color of mourning?
The association of the color black with death and loss is centuries old and is believed to have originated during Roman times. However, it was only after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 that it gained popularity as part of funeral fashion.
Q: What is the most disrespectful thing to wear to a funeral?
While different cultures have their mourning colors, you should typically wear black or neutral colors. Avoid wearing bright colors or prints, which can be disrespectful and distracting. Black, white, grey, and navy are the best choices.
People wear black to funerals to mourn the dead. While black is a color adopted by most countries as a mourning color, different cultures across the world have distinct colors they wear to mourn the dead.
It’s important to respect the traditions of others in case we find ourselves in their midst mourning the loss of loved ones.
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