Mourning: Traditions, Symbols and Meaning

Traditions and rituals of mourning for the dead are common to most cultural groups and societies; mourning of the dead is even seen in some animal species. The observance of mourning can be ceremonial, ritualistic, public or private and individualistic. It can provide consolation to those who grieve; confirm the status in a group or community of both the deceased and those who mourn, according to traditions, upon the death of a person held in public or private esteem; it can give a new or renewed meaning to life.

Historically common to most societies, the first manifestations of mourning for the dead have been a change in dress. This was especially important for those most affected by the death, usually a wife or mother whose life could be more radically changed than others by the loss of a spouse or children and heirs. Dress for both funerals and mourning for the dead has usually deviated distinctly from normal dress. Suggestive of humility in the wearer, it is plain and unadorned, usually either white or black (according to local tradition) and usually covers part of the head. Black, with its associations of night, absence of light and life has long been traditional in England and most European countries. In others and in most of Asia, the purity of undyed, white cloth has been the accepted colour for death and a mark of mourning. Common amongst almost all groups and societies has been the ultimate humility of covering, or even cutting or shaving off the hair, especially of the widow and important women of the household. Whatever a society’s traditions, deviations have always brought scorn upon those who failed to conform and who thereby appeared not to show appropriate attitudes.

In Europe and in England from about the 14th century, black dress became requisite for mourners’ attendance at men’s funerals or, for the poor, the practical alternative of drab, humble attire. White, the symbol of purity and of innocence was often worn for the funerals of children and the young and especially for unmarried females.[1] Traditions for mourning dress and rituals that followed the funeral were well-established in England by the early 17th century and were upheld until the early 20th century. Both men and women in deep mourning were expected to wear black. For women, this meant dress of a black lustreless textile, wool or more usual, a silk-wool mix known as bombazine or for those of lesser means, a dull-coloured cotton poplin. Bombazine and crape, its companion material of silk with a treated, matt and crimped surface for trimming and for veils, were both of Italian origin and until the 18th century, imported.[2] White trim was permissible, especially in the form of plain white wide cuffs known as weepers. Lace or any highly decorative or shiny material was unacceptable. For both the men and women, unavoidable metal trim or other accessories were expected to be modest and have a dull or dulled surface.

By the early 18th century, the accepted form for funerals and mourning had become quite complex. Traditions for honouring the dead became rituals with unavoidable expenditure but provided welcome employment and an income for many. Funeral undertakers were first common in England in the early 18th century and as now, an undertaker organised the burial ceremonies, the funeral, but his contract then could include supplying white or black (as appropriate) gloves, scarves, hatbands and memorial rings to all invited to a funeral. During the 17th and 18th centuries, memorial rings were given out at funerals of the wealthy. They were simple, plainly engraved rings but fifty or more were commonly distributed.[3] Mourning dress would be provided for servants to attend funerals of their employer or his immediate family, and to ensure they were appropriately attired in the mourning home. Not surprisingly, by the mid 19th century when the rituals of funerals and mourning were most complex and rigid, many complained of the expenditure and extravagance expected for funerals and for mourning.[4] Funeral expenses even included a gift to the officiating parson of a 3 ½ yard black or white silk scarf to wear across his surplice and it was said that some vicars’ wives stored scarves given to their husbands until they had sufficient to make a dress.

However poor a family might have been, it was important that there was seen to be a funeral of as much ceremony as possible, for more than reasons of acceptance in the community by following traditions and propriety. Most death and burial ceremonies are strongly linked to religious principles, as well as social mores, and for Christians to be buried with Christian rites and in consecrated ground, they had to be acknowledged and accepted as Christian. This meant that they could not be outside Christian society, even by chance. Those who had died at birth and were unbaptised, were excommunicated, adulterers, thieves, murderers or people who had committed the sin of suicide were among those denied a Christian burial. Poverty, therefore, could not be allowed to deny any honour or status or worse, imply that the deceased had sinned against the State and the Church, quite apart from denying the comfort of the family’s religion at such a time. For the poor, honour and religion could be their only riches. Many poor belonged to Burial Clubs whose members pooled meagre resources to enable appropriate and Christian burials.

For the wealthy European and British family, visible mourning only began with the funeral and could continue for over a year. From the 14th century, a widow (especially one of some means) could be distinguished by her sombre, black dress and widow’s veil. This humble dress was similar to that worn until recently by nuns and later, many widows turned to a life of prayer and dedication to Christian works. By the 16th century, it had become accepted that a family and household in deep mourning would be dressed in clothes similar to those worn at funerals. Even if a close relative died in another country, some show of mourning was deemed necessary, if only for a short time. The period of deep mourning could last from three months to a year, depending on the closeness of the relation. For women, there followed a period of half-mourning dress, when veils or black dresses could be discarded for grey, violet or mauve, or brown. Slowly returning to normal dress was considered more seemly and sincere than a sudden resumption of colourful clothing and behaviour after a pre-ordained time of mourning.

Accessories were an important part of mourning dress and included special handkerchiefs, gloves, fans, parasols, cuffs, scarves, aprons and jewellery. Mourning jewellery came in many forms: brooches, lockets, pins, necklaces, earrings, chains and finger rings. Lockets and especially finger rings were the most common and the most enduring forms of mourning jewellery. Rings were often designed before death and left to friends and relatives in the will of the deceased.[5] Other forms of mourning jewellery were more often a gift from a close relative. Decoration of such jewellery was limited to symbolic floral forms or figures (similar to those used on grave headstones), appropriate inscriptions and black or white. Gold was expected to have a dulled surface or be restricted in its use. Hair of the deceased was often incorporated into mourning jewellery but not, as often thought, by snipping hair from the head of the deceased but either placed in jewellery long before death or a curl saved or given for the purpose of being so used. This custom was in use for royalty from the 16th century and gradually gained common usage until reaching its height of popularity, with all aspects of mourning, in the romanticism of the late 18th to mid 19th century. By this time, even whole items of delicate jewellery were painstakingly made from woven hair or hair in lockets arranged with tweezers, glue and much patience into symbolic floral or landscape forms. A number of firms, epitomised in hair work and became pre–eminent jewellers as a result of their distinctive and meticulous work. Popular ladies’ magazines even included instructions for weaving and arranging hair for lockets, thereby providing an ‘appropriate’ pastime for women and also ensuring peace of mind that the hair used was that of the deceased, it being said that unscrupulous jewellers used any available hair.

For reasons of both humility and expense, semi–precious materials and gemstones and simple methods of construction were commonly used for mourning jewellery, allowing it to be available to all but the poorest as an ever–present memento or memorial of a loved one. Pinchbeck, an inexpensive alloy of copper and zinc, alloys of gold or gilded base metals with simple, enamel decoration were used on less expensive jewellery. Jet, ivory, horn, porcelain and coral were used and gems could be incorporated if modest or symbolically appropriate, such as some black or white stones from the agate family or even small pearls, symbol of tears and of purity. In fact, a romantic language of symbols in mourning jewellery[6] had evolved by the mid 19th century when the ritual of mourning was at its height.[7]

Traditional mourning and its associated rituals and dress was a way of overcoming natural and supernatural forces. By expressing or including emotions, ideas, religious feelings, it was an ever-present and comforting memorial but at its height or at its worst, it could also preclude these by being a vehicle for the status-hungry lovers of spectacle and the power of fashion. These, aspects together with the high cost and increasing complexities, were among reasons for the decline both public and private mourning rituals. By the early 20th century, they became firmly associated with many other ill-favoured aspects of the Victorian era and were virtually discarded. Unfortunately, however, there has been little to take their place in providing personal and communal comfort, leaving many bereaved of those they were closest to or most loved with an exaggerated sense of loss and loneliness. This seems even more marked in the late 20th century, a time of respect more for youth than for the wisdom of elders and respect for their endeavours. In most instances now, donation of human organs for transplanting and grief counselling have taken the place of traditional, communal mourning.

And except perhaps when associated with premature death, even privately mourning by displaying photographs and other mementos of the dead, is now often considered unacceptably morbid.


  1. ^ Coffins of girls were often carried by white-clad girls, even up to the early 19th century. The artist, Angelica Kaufman who died, unmarried in 1808, had her pall supported by young women in white.
  2. ^ The rigid traditions of mourning dress and resultant quantities of textiles imported into England from Italy brought about acts of parliament and taxes to encourage the making and use of English textiles, especially wool or wool-mix materials. The British textile firm, Courtauld’s, successfully emulated Italian silk crape, this being instrumental in the making of the fortunes of this company.
  3. ^ When the diarist, Samuel Pepys died in 1703, 123 rings were presented at his funeral and others sent afterwards. Forty-five rings cost twenty shillings, sixteen cost ten shillings etc. (Pepys’s Diary Vol 1 cited in Phillis Cunnington & Catherine Lucas, Costume for Births, Marriages and Deaths, A  & C Black Ltd London 1972).
  4. ^ In the exhibition, Death, Heaven and the Victorians at the Brighton Art Gallery in 1970, it was stated that an official, mid 19th century estimate was 4 million pounds per annum spent of the trappings of funerals: scarves, rings, feathers etc.
  5. ^ William Shakespeare’s will of 1616 stated his wife’s and daughter’s rings were to be inscribed “Love my memory”; Isaac Walton’s will of 1683 mentioned rings with various mottoes for friends and relatives (Phillis Cunnington & Catherine Lucas, op cit).
  6. ^ Some of the symbols of death and mourning included: anchor = hope; heart = charity/love; cross = faith; weeping willow tree, urn = mourning; seed pearls = tears; ivy = fidelity; bay lear = I change but in death; balm = sympathy; convolvulus = eternal sleep; harebell = grief; pansy = always thinking of you; red poppy = consolation; rosemary = remembrance; yew = sorrow; single hand holding wreath of flowers = a widow mourning; MIZPAH = “The Lord watch between me and thee when we are parted”; broken pillar = death; lily-of-the-valley = the return of happiness; violet = faithfulness; forget-me-not flowers; lily = purity.
  7. ^ Queen Victoria had come to the throne during a period of mourning for William IV and had inherited an established code of mourning which had reached its height in the Romantic Movement. It set the scene for a preoccupation with family and loved ones, commemoration of almost any worthy event, religious fervour, and evangelism and romantic inclinations for symbols of emotions, attitudes and aspirations which lasted throughout her reign. After her husbands death in 1865 until 1885, she wore a widow’s black dress and white indoor bonnet of muslin with ruched crape and streamers, only relaxing her observance of mourning to allow celebrations for her 50th anniversary as reigning monarch.