Death, just like birth, is one of life’s inevitables. Nearly everyone who reaches a certain age will grieve a loved one at some point. We also mourn celebrities, politicians, and in the event of public tragedies, even people whose names we’d never heard before.
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Mourning is a universal experience. That means it’s not always something we do by ourselves. In fact, public mourning rituals have been common throughout history. We also have public mourning rituals today.
The nature of these rituals has changed throughout time. However, while each ritual is different, each reminds us how we come together as friends and family—especially in the wake of a death and during hard times. To better understand this idea, consider these examples.
Public Mourning Rituals From History
It would be impossible to cover every public mourning ritual from history in a single blog post. These examples certainly don’t represent every form of public mourning around the world. Instead, they represent the various shapes and forms public mourning might take.
1. Victorian mourning
Death was ever-present in Victorian England. Lack of proper sanitation and limited access to medicine, combined with the congestion of urban areas, made death a relatively common part of life for the Victorians.
That’s a key reason public mourning also played a major role in Victorian society. This was particularly true when important figures died. Consider the reaction when Prince Albert died. Victorian England practically stood still in the days following his passing. Church leaders delivered funeral sermons throughout the country. People closed the window blinds in their homes. Shops shut down. The country joined together to remember the deceased.
This might come as no surprise if you’ve ever seen a BBC period drama. If so, you know the Victorians considered etiquette and social rituals to be very important. This attitude also applied to the way they mourned their dead.
2. Día de los Muertos
Some public mourning rituals also take the form of celebrations in which members of a particular culture mourn and honor the dead at the same time.
An example would be Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Mexico. This is an annual event in which people throughout the country pay tribute to those who have passed on.
3. Public funerals
Throughout history, there have been many examples of large numbers of people attending the funerals of important figures in a particular culture or society.
This used to be very common in Australia (although it’s been common in other countries too). For example, when explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills died in 1893, 40,000 people attended the funeral.
4. ‘Death wail’
Some scholars point out that the difference between mourning rituals from history and today can tell us a lot about how cultures in the past treated mourning compared to our current customs.
For instance, in many modern cultures and contexts, mourning is a relatively private affair involving only friends and family of the deceased. Additionally, people often feel they’re supposed to avoid extremely public expressions of grief.
That wasn’t always the case. Research shows such peoples as the ancient Celts and Chinese (among plenty others) turned funerals into public affairs that involved “death wails.” During public funerals, those who were particularly close to someone who died would openly express their sorrow with a ritualized wail of sadness. True, many people today can’t stop themselves from crying out at the funerals of those they’ve lost, but this is more spontaneous and less ritualized than it once was.
5. Funeral games
Most people today think of funerals as somber occasions. However, that wasn’t always the case. For instance, in ancient Greece, “funeral games” were somewhat common. These were essentially early versions of the Olympic games.
People would join together to both mourn the dead and honor the gods by participating in athletic competitions after someone died. That might seem strange to us today, but in ancient times and throughout ancient cultures (the Romans also had their versions of funeral games), there was nothing all that strange about it.
That said, to an extent, some modern peoples still strive to make funerals more joyful than they might be in other cultures. Examples include Ireland’s “merry wake” and jazz funerals in New Orleans.
6. Offering baskets
Public mourning often overlapped with other social expectations and customs.For instance, in numerous cultures throughout history, public funerals weren’t just opportunities for people to come together and grieve. They could also give upper-class families the chance to demonstrate their wealth.
When important people died, rival families would often try to “one-up” one another by giving family members of the deceased offering baskets. Families would compete by trying to give the largest or most elaborate basket at a funeral. This illustrates how mourning and class conflict sometimes intersect.
Modern Public Mourning Rituals
Public mourning rituals may have changed, but the general practice hasn’t gone away. Everything from shifting perspectives on death to new technologies has affected the way public mourning occurs now. Consider these examples:
7. National day of mourning
Many countries and cultures observe National Days of Mourning. As you might have guessed, these are days in which people throughout entire nations mourn the passing of someone important. This sometimes involves public grief rituals, candlelight vigils, businesses closing, and other signs of collective mourning.
For example, in the United States, the sitting president sometimes declares a National Day of Mourning when a former president dies or when a major tragedy occurs. Sometimes individual cultures within nations also plan their own National Days of Mourning. An example would be the annual tradition among some Native American tribes in which they mourn Native Americans killed during the country’s history.
8. Candlelight vigils
Researchers can’t seem to determine when this tradition started, but candlelight vigils seem to be even more common now than they were in the past.
Candlelight vigils can vary in size. Sometimes members of a single town will gather in a public place (usually at night) after a local tragedy, lighting candles to show their respect for the dead. That said, candlelight vigils can also occur throughout an entire country after events that affect people across the nation.
Plenty of us find comfort in music after the passing of someone we love. That may be why it’s not uncommon for musicians to organize concerts (and similar performances) after major public tragedies that affect people throughout a country.
For example, after 9/11, The Concert for New York City (featuring such acts as The Who and Paul McCartney) gave New Yorkers the chance to publicly mourn those killed in the terrorist attacks. These public mourning events also let people affected by tragedy come together to support one another during trying times.
It’s important to understand that not all public mourning rituals are one-time or annual events. Sometimes, public mourning continues in a somewhat permanent way via memorials.
The US alone is home to plenty of examples. From the National September 11 Memorial & Museum to Vietnam Veterans Memorial, when a major tragedy gives people reason to mourn on a national scale, we often set aside specific places where people can return and pay tribute to the dead whenever they wish. This serves as a reminder that mourning is an ongoing process.
11. Social media mourning
How many of your friends posted sad emojis when Prince died? Anyone who’s active on social media knows that when a celebrity or other important figure dies, many people mourn their passing together on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
This also happens after large-scale tragedies. The trend has become so common that some scholars now consider it an example of a modern public mourning ritual.
12. Entertainment and art
Films and TV shows don’t merely serve as entertainment. They can also help people cope with difficult feelings.
This often translates to a unique form of modern public mourning. For example, after major tragedies, sometimes filmmakers will make documentaries or biopics in honor of those who died. This is another instance in which scholars point out that people coming together in public spaces (such as movie theaters) to reflect on large-scale tragedies qualifies as a form of public mourning that’s somewhat unique in our modern age.
Although people throughout history have made art about tragedies, today more than ever we have the chance to participate in this form of mourning together. The process might not be a formal ritual, but it’s still ritualized enough to fit the description.
Public Mourning: Sharing Grief & Support
These examples are all unique. However, they share a key trait: they all prove that mourning isn’t always a private experience. On the contrary, because death is a universal human experience, it’s not uncommon for people throughout a culture to grieve together.
- Bustamante, Clarissa. “The Greek Games: The Start Up of the Olympic Games.” STMU History Media, St. Mary’s University, 10 October 2017, stmuhistorymedia.org/the-greek-games-the-start-up-of-the-olympic-games/
- Choksi, Niraj and Matthew Haag. “National Day of Mourning for Bush: What It Means and What’s Closed.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 5 December 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/us/politics/national-day-mourning.html
- Dobler, Robert and Daniel Wojcik. “What ancient cultures teach us about grief, mourning and continuity of life.” The Conversation, The Conversation US, Inc., 1 November 2017, theconversation.com/what-ancient-cultures-teach-us-about-grief-mourning-and-continuity-of-life-86199
- Galvany, Albert. “Death and Ritual Wailing in Early China: Around the Funeral of Lao Dan.” Asia Major, 2012, www.jstor.org/stable/43486144?seq=1
- Heath, Chelsey F. “When is Day of the Dead and what does it celebrate?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, LLC, 31 October 2019, www.usatoday.com/story/life/2019/10/31/day-dead-when-it-what-does-dia-de-los-muertos-celebrate/2491063001/
- Kole, William J. “Native Americans To Hold 50th National Day Of Mourning On Thanksgiving In Plymouth.” CBS Boston, CBS Broadcasting, Inc., 26 November 2019, boston.cbslocal.com/2019/11/26/native-americans-national-day-of-mourning-thanksgiving-plymouth-massachusetts/
- Maclean, Hilda. “Public mourning: a brief history.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2014, www.smh.com.au/opinion/public-mourning-a-brief-history-20141222-12c7ax.html
- Reitzammer, Laurialan. “Grief for the Ages.” Slate, The Slate Group, 27 May 2016, slate.com/technology/2016/05/how-mourning-on-social-media-is-like-mourning-in-ancient-greece.html
- Rosen, Bruce. “To Die For - The Victorian Way of Death.” Academia. www.academia.edu/28188917/The_Victorian_Way_of_Death
- Sabak, James G. “‘Keeping Vigil’ and the Response of a Believer to Grief and Suffering.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 2017, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/horizons/article/keeping-vigil-and-the-response-of-a-believer-to-grief-and-suffering/88576781D21D6307D8AFBCD09E822A55/core-reader
- Wawzenek, Bryan. “15 Years Ago: The Who Rule ‘The Concert for New York City’.” Ultimate Classic Rock, Townsquare Media, Inc., 20 October 2016, ultimateclassicrock.com/the-who-concert-for-new-york-city/
- Wilmot, Claire. “The Space Between Mourning and Grief.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group LLC, 8 June 2016, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/internet-grief/485864/