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Colours of mourning around the world

In many parts of the world, black is traditionally the colour of death, mourning and funeral fashion, but it is not the universal colour of mourning everywhere.

Here, we look at the colours worn at funerals and in mourning across different cultures and explore some of the significance of colour as we mourn, or celebrate the life of someone who has died.

A Victorian widow in mourning clothes Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Black

Strongly associated with death and mourning in the West

Donning dark colours for mourning has been strongly associated with death and loss for centuries in the west and is a practice believed to date back to the Roman times.

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, mourning fashion became de rigueur. For 40 years until the time of her own death, Queen Victoria wore black widow’s weeds in memory of her beloved consort. Her elaborate mourning rituals became customary in the Victorian era, with etiquette decreeing widows wearing full mourning, for between one and two years after the death of their husbands.

During this time it was also considered proper for a Victorian widow walking out in public to wear a mourning bonnet and black crepe veil over her face for the first six months. Widowers were expected to mourn their wives for only between three and six months and were able to go on with their lives wearing their everyday suit, which was usually a dark colour.

Black jewellery made from polished stone, jet, was particularly popular in the form of mourning brooches and mourning rings. It also was also not uncommon for the bereaved to incorporate the intricately knotted or woven hair of the person who died into mourning jewellery, as a sentimental and tangible way of remembering a loved one.

a white rose Picture: Galina N on Unsplash

White

Purity and rebirth

Many people wear white mourning clothes in eastern Asia, symbolising purity and rebirth.

In Cambodia, the official religion is Buddhism, a faith which believes that when someone dies they are reincarnated, in a circle of life. The family of someone who dies wears white mourning, in the hope that their loved ones are reborn again.

The idea of white mourning, otherwise known as deuil blanc in French, was formed during the 16th century when white was worn by bereaved children and unmarried women. This became a custom for the reigning queens of France, which inspired Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) to follow suit after the loss of three immediate family members within a period of 18 months.

Before Queen Victoria died in 1901, she left very detailed instructions of how she wanted white to play a part in her funeral.Not only did she wear her white wedding veil over her face, but she also requested white horses and a white pall over her coffin to be part of her send off.

Placing red carnations on a grave

Red

Honour and patriotism

Red has different meanings, according to different cultures. In China, red symbolises happiness and is a colour that’s strictly forbidden at funerals. In South Africa, red is has been adopted as a colour of mourning, representing the bloodshed suffered during the Apartheid era.

After the death of South Africa’s national football goalkeeper and captain, Senzo Meyiwa, mourners packed a football stadium in Durban, dressed in red, while paying their respects to their national hero.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu also wore red, in tribute to Nelson Mandela, at the former South African president’s funeral in 2013.

The Rainbow Nation’s colour of mourning also takes up a section of the South African flag, with the red representing its struggle for independence from Dutch and British colonists.

A bereaved woman wearing purple

Purple

A colour of spirituality

During Easter week, in Guatemala, Catholics celebrate by reenacting the days leading to Christ’s resurrection. During the Procession of the Holy Cross, on Good Friday, men and boys dress in purple robes and hoods as a sign of mourning and symbol of the pain and suffering of Christ’s crucifixion.

Many devout Catholics in Brazil also wear purple, alongside black, while mourning the loss of a loved one. In fact, it can be considered disrespectful and unlucky to wear purple if you are not attending a funeral, as the colour has a sacred, devotional meaning to it.

In Thailand, purple defines sorrow, and is reserved for widows to wear while mourning the death of their spouse. However, other funeral guests are required to wear black.

An ancient Egyptian mummy casket Photo by Jonothunder via Wikimedia Commons

Gold

A journey to the afterlife

In ancient Egypt, gold was associated with eternal life and the all-powerful god Ra, whose flesh was believed to be formed from the precious metal. Imperishable, and indestructible, gold was the colour of royal mourning.

As magnificent treasures discovered in ancient Egyptian burial chambers have revealed, Royals and well-born ancient Egyptians were well-prepared for their journey into the afterlife. It was believed that after their death on earth, kings and queens would assume their status as deities, with the famous gold death mask of boy king Tutankhamun reflecting his own place in the heavens.

A widow from Papua New Guinea, holding a baby Photo by Michal Gonnen via Flickr

Grey

Mourning tradition in Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, widows apply a grey, stone-coloured clay to their skin, after the death of their husband. As seen in the picture above, this women is also wearing numerous loops of grey, grass seeds. Every day, the woman removes one loop.

The amount of necklaces she is wearing suggest that this woman is coming to the end of her mourning period. The mourning usually ends when the last loop is taken off, which is usually nine months after the man’s death.

Affixing a pink remembrance ribbon to a shirt

All the colours of the rainbow

Paying tribute to a lost loved one

Although religion and tradition are still an important part of many funerals, there’s been a step change towards personalised funerals which are a celebration of life.

It may be the wish of the person who has died for mourners to wear bright colours, or the family may request you to wear a specific colour or ribbon in support of a charity. Usually, these details are supplied by the family or funeral director prior to the funeral. If you’re attending a funeral and unsure of the dress code, you may find our what to wear to a funeral guide helpful.