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The Colours of Mourning

Here in Nova Scotia, if we are attending a funeral, the mourners tend to wear black or dark colours. But does this tradition hold true for other countries? I did some research and was surprised by the history of the colours of mourning as well as the significance of the colours for various parts of the world. This blog is a brief sampling of my social etiquette findings.

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. Gold was the colour of royal mourning.

In the United States, Vietnam, Germany, Japan, Thailand, Tonga, Turkey, the Maori in New Zealand and large parts of Europe and North America, black or dark colours is still the traditional choice. The colour black being associated with death and loss may have originated during Roman times. In Ancient Rome, black was standard for funerals and this strict dress code was enforced. Those who follow Judaism also tend to wear black. White or black mourning clothes are also generally worn by those who follow Hinduism.

Fast forward to the Victorian era and it was Queen Victoria’s choice to wear black after the loss of her husband in 1861. She was so heartbroken after her 20 years plus marriage to her cousin (as husband) that she continuously wore black until her own death. The nobles imitated their leader to wear black mourning clothes themselves, which cemented this colour tradition and it spread across the world.

Not all royalty wore black to signify their grief. Mary Queen of Scots wore white after the death of several members of her family died within a short period of time. Other parts of Europe followed suit. White signifies purity and rebirth. In France, starting in the 16th century, white was worn by bereaved children and unmarried women. White mourning clothes are also worn in East Asia and by those who follow Sikhism and Buddhism.

In Thailand, purple is the colour of choice for widows, but all other guests wear black. In Brazil, purple is THE colour of mourning, so it is seen as “unlucky” to wear it at any other occasion. Black and purple mourning clothes are worn by Catholics in Brazil.

Red is the colour of mourning in South Africa as it represents the Apartheid era and the bloodshed during these years. Red is worn by the immediate family in Ghana, but the other mourners wear black. In China, red is a colour that is strictly forbidden to wear at funerals. In China, black or white mourning garb is traditionally worn.

In Papua New Guinea, grey is the colour that comes from a light, stone-coloured clay that women apply to their skin, after the death of their husband. Grey is the colour of mourning there in general.

The Xhosa in South Africa often incorporate tribal patterns into their mourning clothing.

As a death doula, I find it interesting to see how the color of mourning changes throughout time and location.

Please note that despite local traditional colours of mourning, it may be the wish of the deceased or their family for you to wear a specific colour or a ribbon in support of a charity. Usually, these details are supplied by the family or funeral director prior to the funeral. At the core, people just want to honor and respect their deceased loved ones.

In conclusion, if you are travelling to another country for a funeral, or attending a funeral/living wake locally, you may want to keep this information in mind so that you can dress accordingly.

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