If you’ve ever been to a funeral – particularly in the Western world – you’ll be familiar with the tradition of wearing black as a mark of respect and honour for the dead. Why is that? What are the origins of wearing black in Western society? And are there other countries and cultures where black is not the traditional choice for a funeral?
The backstory of black at funerals
Most observers trace the wearing of black garments at funerals back to Roman times. In those days, attendees would wear a dark-coloured toga, known as a toga pulla, to show they were in mourning for the deceased. The tradition was disseminated throughout the Roman Empire and took root in British society, where the upper classes would observe it fastidiously.
Indeed, in some cases, ladies in mourning were expected to wear black clothes for a whole year after the death of their husband, and to observe “half-mourning” for three years after that. In this time, it was permitted to allow purple and grey to enter back into their wardrobe again. With the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the practice became more widespread among the working classes and by this time had also spread to the rest of the British Empire, including the United States, Canada and Australia.
Other colours in other cultures
The association of black with funeral is deeply-rooted in Roman Catholicism and Christianity, but for other religions, white is often the colour which best represents mourning. In Buddhist and Hindu countries, for example, white is seen as a symbol of purity and innocence, meaning that places like China, India and the Middle East often feature all-white funerals.
Other cultures favour other colours to signify mourning. In Egypt, yellow is associated with the sun, a symbol of everlasting life; for this reason, many sarcophagi and mummies have masks painted in colours of yellow and gold and yellow is frequently worn to funerals. Ethiopia, Mexico and Myanmar are other countries where yellow is associated with mourning.
Meanwhile in Thailand, purple is the predominant colour of choice when widows mourn the death of their husband. Brazil also offers purple as a colour of bereavement, while in recent years the Catholic Church in Europe has also adopted it. Elsewhere, blue is favoured in South Korea and grey in Papua New Guinea.
New funeral trends
With the population of the world (and the West in particular) becoming less and less religious and more and more liberal, new trends have sprung up over recent years. Rather than an occasion of mourning, some people tend to prefer to view them as an occasion for celebration of the deceased’s life.
With that idea in mind, there are all kinds of new themed funerals, whereby attendees are invited to wear fancy dress, colourful clothing or follow a particular theme. As long as respect is being shown and those involved in organising the event don’t take offence, such funerals can be a marvellous occasion.