Why Do People Wear Black to Funerals? Behind the Tradition

Published November 23, 2020
grieving family at a funeral

Why do people wear black to funerals? A short discussion of the traditions and culture helps understanding. Traditions are especially meaningful in connection with funerals and mourning: gentle music playing quietly in the background and family and friends gathered for a time of remembrance add to the flavor of the custom; even the color of clothing is a part of the tradition.

Why Do People Wear Black to Funerals?

Wearing of black clothing to show mourning and respect at a funeral has long been accepted as proper funeral etiquette, especially in western cultures. Funerals are sad and somber events. Wearing black indicates mourning someone's loss, and it is considered a sign of respect for the deceased and their family.

Roman Empire

Most historians trace the tradition of wearing black at funerals to the time of the Roman Empire. Ancient Romans wore white togas under normal conditions. They would wear a dark toga, known as a toga pulla, to mourn the loss of a loved one.

More Important Than Color

Over the years, the color of clothing was not as important as its style. A woman whose husband had died could not remarry as quickly as a man who had lost his wife in many cultures. Because of the demands of society, the widow was to make herself look as unattractive as possible in order to declare that she was not available because of the period of mourning.

The British Empire and Queen Victoria

The tradition of wearing black to a funeral became a foundational part of tradition because of Queen Victoria of England. She ascended to the throne in 1837 when she was 18 years of age. She quickly became a fashion icon for the women of England and the rest of the world. When a very popular duke died, an elaborate government funeral was planned. Queen Victoria showed her respect and sorrow by wearing a black mourning gown, made especially for the occasion. Wearing black to show mourning quickly became the accepted trend.

Elaborate Attire

Having the proper clothing to wear to a funeral involved more than the simple purchase of a black dress. Appropriate accessories included hats, shoes, fans, scarves, and wraps. Dressing in an unacceptable manner could be socially devastating in many communities, costing employment and status.

elaborate attire

Other Colors of Mourning

Following the Victorian era, women were expected to dress in mourning for up to four years. After the first year, the woman entered what was known as "half-mourning," where she could include dark colors of purple and gray into the wardrobe. Other cultures include several other colors as a part of the mourning traditions.

The Color of White

As a symbol of purity and innocence, white has played a role in mourning traditions for years. When a youth is present at a funeral, they are often dressed in white as a sign of the innocence of the child. This is especially true if the deceased were a child. Often women, while using black as the dominant color, would accompany their outfits with accessories of white. White is also seen as the color of mourning in the Hindu traditions.

The Color of Yellow or Gold

In cultures like Egypt, yellow has been the accepted color for mourning for centuries. The color is associated with the sun. Gold was used in the preparation of many mummies.

The Color of Purple

While purple was used in situations like "half-mourning," leaders of the Catholic Church often used purple in their cleric ware during the funeral services. Many countries that were influenced by a strong Catholic presence introduced purple into the mourning attire of those attending the funeral.

Funeral Customs Celebrate Life

Funeral clothing and mourning traditions often answer the question, "Why do people wear black at funerals?" The traditions from different cultures help us respect the deceased while celebrating the value of their life. Wearing the accepted colors of mourning to a funeral affords dignity and honor to the family.

Why Do People Wear Black to Funerals? Behind the Tradition