If you scan the crowd at an American funeral, you would probably see quite a few people wearing black, dark blue, or gray. Most of those in attendance may not know that the practice of wearing black as a sign of mourning became popular during Queen Victoria’s reign of the British Empire.
Some westerners might not be aware of the various symbols of mourning around the world. They may assume that every culture views black as the color most associated with mourning, but that is not the case.
There are a lot of differences when it comes to mourning in other countries, cultures, and religions. Specifically, we will look at the importance of clothing colors in the grieving process.
1. Black in Turkey
Since more than half of Turkey’s population are Muslim, it makes sense that most mourners in Turkey would follow Islamic traditions. According to a website that answers questions regarding Islamic traditions, there are no official mourning colors for Muslim people.
In fact, there is “no religious text in the Quran or the Sunnah, indicating that one should wear black clothes while mourning, but there is the prohibition of wearing clothes that contradict grieving.” This means that if a Muslim dies in the United States, most people grieving will wear black. If a Muslim dies in China, the family will not wear red at a funeral because, in that country, the color red “contradicts grieving.”
2. White in China
Although most websites say that white is the color of mourning in China, an article titled “Chinese Death Rituals” says otherwise. While white is commonly used, it is dependent upon to which dialect group the family belongs. Black is sometimes considered a mourning color in China as well as white.
No matter which region of China the deceased resided in, it is considered in poor taste to wear bright colors, such as red or yellow, while mourning. Besides wearing black or white clothing, family members may also wear a coarse overcoat, hat, and slippers to show that they care little for appearances or comfort because someone they loved has died.
Mourning pins are also worn in China. The pins are typically small pieces of cloth that are pinned to the sleeve of the mourner. The pin may be worn for either 49 days or 100 days, with the first day being the day of the funeral. The mourning pin is worn on the left sleeve if the person who died was a male, and the right if the deceased was a female.
3. Black in Judaism
According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, color has a symbolic meaning in the Jewish community. While white is a sign associated with purity, black is the traditional color of mourning.
For this reason, you will find that most people who attend Jewish funerals wear black or dark colors. You may also notice men (and perhaps women) wearing a kippah or yarmulke. You may even see that the immediate family members have tears on their clothing, perhaps on a collar, pocket, or label. The practice of tearing a garment after being overcome with grief is called kriah (or keriah). Orthodox Jews usually tear the actual garment while other Jews wear a black, torn ribbon as a symbol of the practice.
The practice of tearing one’s garment can be found when Jacob tore his garments when he thought his son Joseph had died. David also tore his clothes when he heard that King Saul was deceased. Jacob also expressed his grief for his troubled life by tearing his mantle.
4. White in Sikhism
In many cultures, the color white represents purity, but in some religions, the color white symbolizes additional ideas. For example, white can express the concept of oneness with God or represent eternal life in others.
For these reasons, white is also an appropriate color to wear to funerals. An example of this practice can be found in the Sikh religion. Sikh women may wear white or black while in mourning.
5. White or Black in Hinduism
Though there are variations within the Hindu traditions, women generally wear white or black.
Some Hindus also dress the deceased in specific colors after death. The colors that are chosen indicate the deceased’s age, marital status, and caste. If the deceased was an elderly male, the body is typically dressed in white. A married woman who dies may be dressed in a new red or pink sari.
6. White in Buddhism
It is common for Buddhist mourners to wear simple, white clothes. An austere attitude and lifestyle tend to accompany this, with mourners avoiding wearing jewelry. They also eat simply and do not participate in entertaining activities.
7. Red in South Africa
Red is the color that expresses mourning or grief in South Africa. Some say that the color red represents the blood that was shed during the Apartheid Era.
8. Red in Ghana
Red is the color of public mourning in Ghana, but the color is commonly reserved for the immediate family members. Extended family and friends wear black to show support to the immediate family.
9. Black in Japan
If a Japanese mourner wears western clothes to a funeral, it is common for those clothes to be black. Women may accessorize black garments with a single strand of white pearls.
If traditional Japanese clothes are worn at a funeral, the female wears a black kimono with a black sash. The kimono is worn over white undergarments and is paired with black sandals and white socks.
Japanese men wear a black kimono with black or gray striped trousers. They also wear a black jacket with a white closure.
The more traditional mourning clothes are usually worn by members of the immediate family or close friends to the deceased. Extended family members and friends may wear less traditional Japanese clothes or western clothing.
10. Black in Thailand
The color of mourning has seemed to have changed in Thailand. At one point in history, the Thai people wore white. Currently, the most popular color is black.
The exception to the rule is for widows. When a woman grieves over the death of her spouse in Thailand, she may show this by wearing purple.
11. Black in Tonga
Family members of the deceased in Tonga wear black for a long time. If a member of the royal family dies, the entire country often wears black in honor of the deceased person.
The people of Tonga also hang black bunting from their homes or buildings after losing a family member. If a member of the royal family dies, the attached bunting is both black and purple.
12. Black in the United States
Most researchers trace the American practice of wearing black when mourning to Victorian England. During Queen Victoria’s reign, it became fashionable to show you were in mourning by wearing widow’s weeds for months or years. Entire new wardrobes and accessories were purchased so one could “go into mourning.”
The length of time a person was in mourning depended upon how closely related she was to the deceased. Women who lost a first cousin may wear mourning clothes for four weeks. Women who lost their husbands were usually in mourning for two years, and some chose to continue dressing in widow’s weeds for the rest of their lives.
Even though Queen Victoria oversaw this trend during her time on the throne, she left instructions that she wished to be buried in white. Also, her daughter-in-law did not dress in full funeral regalia. But the practice of wearing black at a funeral continued across the British Empire and into the United States. This tradition that started in 19th Century England can be seen in the United States over 100 years later.
How Do You Dress For a Funeral?
It’s difficult to predict how people will express mourning through clothing in the future, but you may have already noticed some change in people’s outfits when attending contemporary funeral services. Will Americans continue wearing black, just like the people in Victorian England? Or will more people see those customs as outdated?
What if the mourning color is dictated more by religion rather than culture? Will most Hindus continue to wear white to a funeral because it symbolizes purity, or will that practice fall away?
It will be interesting to see how the color of mourning changes throughout time. No matter how people choose to mourn, at the core of every tradition people want to honor and respect their deceased loved ones.
- Dennis, Geoffrey W. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism.” Llewellyn Worldwide, 2007.
- “Jewish Mourning Traditions.” images.shulcloud.com/946/uploads/Jewish-Mourning-Traditions--Text-Torah-study.pdf
- Sheikh `Atiyyah Saqr. “Are Black Clothes a Necessity When Mourning?” 28 March 2020. aboutislam.net/counseling/ask-the-scholar/funeral/are-black-clothes-a-necessity-when-mourning/
- Yeo, Teresa Rebecca. “Chinese Death Rituals.” SingaporeInfopedia. November 2019. eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2015-11-30_175737.html