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This is a background article.

Main article: Grief

Margaret of Spain, Empress of Austria, in mourning, 1666; note the attendants in mourning dress behind her.

Mourning is, in the simplest sense, synonymous with grief over the death of someone. The word is also used to describe a cultural complex of behaviours in which the bereaved participate or are expected to participate. Customs vary between different cultures and evolve over time, though many core behaviors remain constant.

Wearing dark, sombre clothes is one practice followed in many countries, though other forms of dress are also seen. Those most affected by the loss of a loved one often observe a period of grieving, marked by withdrawal from social events and quiet, respectful behavior. People may also follow certain religious traditions for such occasions.

Mourning may also apply to the death of, or anniversary of the passing of, an important individual like a local leader, monarch, religious figure etc. State mourning may occur on such an occasion. In recent years some traditions have given way to less strict practices, though many customs and traditions continue to be followed.

Social customs and dress

Continental Europe

"Mourning dress" redirects here. For the daytime form of men's formal dress, see morning dress.


Catherine de' Medici as widow, c. 1560s


File:Schwarzer Trauerschmuck2.jpg

Mourning jewelry


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.

Women in mourning and widows wore distinctive black caps and veils, generally in a conservative version of the current fashion.

In rural areas of Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece 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.

White mourning

Mary Queen of Scots in deuil blanc c. 1559 following the deaths of her father-in-law, mother, and first husband Francis II of France.

Advertisement for Victorian mourning garb

The colour of deepest mourning among medieval European queens was white rather than black. This tradition survived in Spain until the end of the fifteenth century, and was again practiced by the Spanish-born Belgian Queen Fabiola of King Baudouin's funeral. It was the custom for the Queens of France to wear deuil blanc or "white mourning"; this is the origin of the "white wardrobe" created by Norman Hartnell for Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, in 1938, when Elizabeth was required to make a state visit to France while in mourning for her mother.

United Kingdom

Nowadays there is no special dress or behaviour required for those in mourning and even the wearing of black at funerals is in decline. Traditionally however there were strict social rules to be observed.

By the 19th century, mourning behaviour 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 colours, went with these ensembles. There was even special mourning jewellery, often made of jet or the hair of the deceased. The wealthy could also wear cameos or lockets designed to hold a lock of the deceased's hair or some similar relic.

Poor orphans depicted wearing a makeshift black armband to mourn for their mother (Work by F.M. Brown), 1865

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, suggestive of potential sexual promiscuity. 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 descriptions.

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.

Mourning was worn for six months for a sibling. Parents would wear mourning for, "as long as they feel so disposed." A widow was supposed to wear mourning for two years and was not supposed to enter society for twelve months. No lady or gentleman in mourning was supposed to attend balls. Amongst polite company the wearing of simply a black arm band was seen as appropriate only for military men (or others compelled to wear uniform in the course of their duties); wearing a black arm band instead of proper mourning clothes was seen as a degradation of proper ettiquette and to be avoided.[1]

Formal mourning culminated during the reign of Queen Victoria. Victoria herself may have had much to do with the practice, owing to her long and conspicuous grief over the death of her husband, Prince Albert. 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 prescribed and rigidly adhered to.

The rules were gradually relaxed and acceptable practice for both sexes became to dress in dark colours for up to a year after a death in the family. By the late 20th century, this no longer applied.

United States

Mourning dress, circa 1867
Museum of Funeral Customs

Mourning generally followed English forms. In the antebellum South, with social mores that rivaled those of England, mourning was just as strictly observed.

Victorian mourning could be quite expensive. At the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy explains to Glinda that she must return home because her aunt and uncle can not afford to go into mourning for her.[2]

The loss of the male head of the family had serious ramifications for American Indian widows; mourning among some tribes included the act of cutting off of a finger.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


In Ethiopia, an edir is a traditional community organization in which the members assist each other during the mourning process. Members make monthly financial contributions forming the Edir's fund and they will be entitled to receive a certain sum of money from this fund, the rate of which varies based on how close the deceased is to the Edir member. The purpose for such payment is to help cover the funeral and other expenses associated with the death. In addition, female members of the Edir take turns to do the house work like preparing food for the mourning family and people coming to comfort them. Usually, the male members take the responsibility to arrange the funeral, erect a temporary tent to shelter guests who come to visit the mourning family. Edir members are also required to stay with the mourning family and comfort them for three full days.

State & Official mourning

Main article: National day of mourning
File:George W. Bush John Paul II funeral.jpg

Queen Paola of Belgium in "grand deuil"

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 22, 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 were 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 after the death of a Head of state. The signs may vary but usually include the lowering or posting half-staff of flags on public buildings.

In contrast, in the United Kingdom, the Royal Standard is never flown at half-mast, because there is always a monarch on the throne.

On the death of the Emir of Kuwait in January 2006, a 40-day mourning period was declared. In Tonga, the official mourning lasts for a year; only afterwards is the royal heir crowned the new king.

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 of mourning, power must 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 of closing the offices, especially on the day of the state funeral.

Religions and Customs


The European social forms described above are, in general, forms of Christian religious expression transferred to the greater community.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Mass of Paul VI, adopted in 1969, allows several options for the liturgical color used in Masses for the Dead. Prior to the liturgical reform, black was the ordinary color for funeral Masses; in the revised use, several options are available. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (§346d-e), violet, white, or black vestments may be worn at Offices and Masses for the dead.

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 colours, 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 sombre dress or, as mentioned, the liturgical color purple.


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 its journey ahead: "As mourners will not help the dead in this world, therefore (the relatives) should not weep, but perform the obsequies to the best of their power."[3]

Hindu mourning is described in dharma shastras[4][5]. It 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 three days. Hinduism associates death with ritual impurity for the immediate blood family of the deceased, hence during these mourning days, the immediate blood family must not perform any religious ceremonies (except funerals), must not visit temples or other sacred places, must not serve the sages (holy men), must not give alms, must not read or recite from the sacred scriptures nor can they attend social functions like marriages, parties etc. Hence the family of the deceased is not expected to serve any visiting guests food or drink, and it is customary that the visiting guests do not eat or drink in the house where the death has occurred. The family in mourning are required to bathe twice a day, eat a single simple vegetarian meal and try to cope up with their loss. On the day on which the death has occurred, the family do not cook, hence usually close family and friends will provide food for the mourning family. White clothing (the colour of purity) is also the colour of mourning and many will wear white during the mourning period.

On the morning of the thirteenth day, a Shraddha ceremony is performed. The main ceremony involves a fire sacrifice, in which offerings are given to the ancestors and to 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 return back to daily life.


Main article: Islamic funeral#Mourning

Mourning is observed in Islam by increased devotion, receiving visitors and condolences, and avoiding decorative clothing and jewelry.

Loved ones and relatives are to observe a 3-day mourning period.[6] Widows observe an extended mourning period (Iddah), 4 months and 10 days[7] long, in accordance with the Qur'an 2:234. During this time, she is not to remarry, move from her home, or wear decorative clothing or jewelry.

Grief at the death of a beloved person is normal, and weeping for the dead is allowed in Islam.[8] What is prohibited is to express grief by wailing ( Bewailing refers to mourning in a loud voice), shrieking, tearing hair or clothes, breaking things or scratching faces or saying phrases that makes a Muslim lose faith.[9]

Directives for widows

Qur'an prohibits widows to engage themselves for four lunar months and ten days, after the death of their husbands. According to Qur'an:

And those of you who die and leave widows behind, they should keep themselves in waiting for four months and ten days. Then when they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you about what they do with themselves in accordance with the norms [of society]. And Allah is well acquainted with what you do. And there is also no blame on you if you tacitly send a marriage proposal to these women or hold it in your hearts. Allah knows that you would definitely talk to them. [Do so] but do not make a secret contract. Of course you can say something in accordance with the norms [of the society]. And do not decide to marry until the law reaches its term. And know that Allah has knowledge of what is in your hearts; so be fearful of Him and know that Allah is Most forgiving and Most Forbearing.


  1. REDIRECT: Template:Cite quran

Islamic scholars consider this directive a balance between mourning a husband's death and protection of the widow from censure that she became interested in re-marrying too soon after her husband’s death.[10] This is also to ascertain whether or not a lady is pregnant.[11]


Main article: Bereavement in Judaism

Judaism looks upon mourning as a process by which the stricken can re-enter into society, and so provides a series of customs that make this process.

The most known and central stage is Shiva, which is a Jewish mourning practice in which people adjust their behaviour as an expression of their bereavement for the week immediately after the burial. In the West, typically, mirrors are covered and a small tear is made in an item of clothing to indicate a lack of interest in personal vanity. The bereaved dress simply and sit on the floor, short stools or boxes rather than chairs when receiving the condolences of visitors. English speakers use the expression "to sit shiva".

Modern customs

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. The armband is still seen, but mostly amongst Irish, German, Austrian, and other northern- and central-European Catholic groups such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians. 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, commemoration, or protest by a particular group in an unusual circumstance. For instance:

  • The wearing of black armbands 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 the death of a former or current Head of State or other notable leader).
  • However, flags are sometimes lowered to half-staff 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.
  • In all cases, when a flag is to be flown at half-staff or half-mast it is first to be fully hoisted and only then lowered half-way, never raised only to half-way and left there.
  • Local-, state- and federal-uniformed employees in the United States who wear badges place a black band around the badge when a fellow employee has been killed in the line of duty.
  • The wearing of a black armband to protest an action by one's government that the wearer considers so atrocious as to warrant mourning for the loss of the decency/respect for human life/morals of their country. A circumstance in which this would occur would be a time when a person believes that their country has committed genocide, or made a decision that will jeopardize the future of their country.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
  • A wedding ring, either the original or the dead partner's, may be worn for a period after the death.

See also


  1. The Universal Cyclopædia, W. Ralston Balch, Griffith Farran Okeden & Welsh, London, c. 1887
  2. L. Frank Baum, Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Wizard of Oz, p 334, ISBN 0-517-500868
  3. Viṣṇu smṛti 20.30
  4. Viṣṇu smṛti 20.30-40
  5. Āpastamba dharma sūtra
  6. Sahih Muslim Volume 2, Book 23, Number 369-371
  7. Sahih Muslim Volume 2, Book 23, Number 370-371
  8. Sahih Muslim Volume 2, Book 23, Number 391
  9. Sahih Muslim Volume 2, Book 23, Number 375-393
  10. Islahi(1986), pp. 546
  11. Shehzad Saleem. The Social Directives of Islam: Distinctive Aspects of Ghamidi’s Interpretation, Renaissance. March, 2004.

Further reading

  • Almond, R. (2008). On: Object loss, renewed mourning, and psychic change in Jane Austen's Persuasion: International Journal of Psychoanalysis Vol 89(1) Feb 2008, 195-196.

External links