I recently attended a funeral for the father of a dear friend of mine. We were all visiting, when she said her 8 year old son had a question for me… he asked ‘why are we supposed to wear black for funerals?’ Other than as a sign of respect, I didn’t have the complete ‘why’ to answer his question – and I’m a big fan of knowing the ‘why’ behind social rules and customs. So I reached out to another friend, Stephen Zahn, who is the General Manager for Hahn-Cook/Street & Draper Funeral Directors at Rose Hill Burial Park. Stephen gladly agreed to write a blog post to answer the question in a bit more detail for us. Thanks Stephen!
Why do we wear black to funerals?
“We mourn in black.” (Shakespeare)
The custom of wearing black funeral attire, or mourning clothes, can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Ancient Greeks and Romans wore black for periods of mourning after the death of a family member, especially for the funeral and procession accompanying the body to the burial site. Ancient Mourners clothes might be worn for up to a year after the death.
Throughout Western History public signs of mourning relied on symbolism, such as black clothing, to indicate a relationship to the deceased. Black mourning clothes were considered a mark of respect, and their absence could be interpreted as disrespect or nonchalance.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, distinctive mourning was worn for the general as well as personal loss. Formal mourning and mourning attire culminated during the reign of Queen Victoria. After the death of her husband, Prince Albert, Victoria wore only black until her own death 42 years later. 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 a monarch.
By the 19th Century, mourning behavior in Europe had developed into a complex set of rules, particularly among the upper class. Women bore the greatest burden of these customs. They involved wearing heavy, concealing, black clothing, and the use of heavy veils of black crepe. The entire ensemble was known as widow’s weeds (from the Old English “weed” meaning “garment”.)
For the United States, mourning generally has followed English forms. However, faith in a particular religion plays a major role in whether black or white is worn at a funeral. For example, for the almost 4% of Americans who practice Hinduism or Buddhism, white is the traditional color for funeral attire. White symbolizes purity.
Mourning attire has become less customary since the mid twentieth century. 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.
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