The Meaning of Colour in Mourning Rituals Around the World

Traditions around the mourning process vary greatly across the globe, but one common feature is the association of a particular colour with grieving.

The association of a certain colour with mourning forms an easily identifiable marker which visually illustrates that a funeral is taking place or a person is in mourning over the loss of a loved one. Think, for example, of Queen Victoria who famously only ever wore black after the death of her beloved consort, Prince Albert. She chose to wear black, our traditional colour of mourning, for the rest of her life in order to signify to others her deep sense of grief and ongoing feelings of loss. Indeed, this custom survives today with many widows, in countries as diverse as Russia, Greece, Mexico, Portugal and Spain, choosing to remain in black. (We call these “widow’s weeds” from the Old English word “waed” meaning garment)

In the UK, Western Europe and North America, black, as the traditional colour of mourning, dates back to the Roman Empire when a “toga pulla” made from dark, undyed wool was worn to signify mourning. As undyed wool was easier to make, it is perhaps this simplicity in the dress code that shows the person was concentrating on their grief and withdrawing from the norms of society. Additionally, throughout many cultures, black is seen as the colour of evil and the underworld which may be why it still resonates as a funereal colour to this day.

Interestingly, this illustrates some very different feelings about the cycle of life and death within different cultures. For many in the west, death is seen as the end, however in other cultures, particularly in the east, the demise of the physical body simply denotes rebirth and black does not feature in mourning at all.

In fact, in many eastern cultures, it is white which is the colour of mourning, symbolising purity and rebirth. In India, for example, widow’s weeds are white and everyone at a Hindu funeral also wears white.

While white is more common across the eastern world, it has also made (and continues to make) appearances in the west. For medieval European queens, white was the colour of deepest mourning, with this tradition continuing in Spain until the end of the 15th century. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands reintroduced white as the colour of mourning in the Dutch royal family after the death of her husband in 1934, and it remains a tradition to this day.

Norman Hartnell referenced white as the colour of mourning in his 1938 White Wardrobe; designed for the late Queen Mother. She was making a state visit to France shortly after the death of her own mother however black was felt to be inappropriate in July and colour was out of the question.

After the death of King Edward VII in 1910, both black and white made an appearance at Black Ascot during a period of national mourning. While the royal family did not attend Ascot that year, the race meeting was not cancelled out of respect for the late king who was a keen horse racing fan. Although many of the racegoers wore only black, a large proportion chose to wear black and white.

Colours other than black and white, also feature in mourning and funeral rites. However, in Egypt, yellow is the traditional colour, passed on from the time of the pharaohs. Ancient Egyptians used gold to paint masks of mummies and the inside of tombs, referencing the sun and the moon. This was seen as a good sentiment with which to send the deceased into the afterlife. Interestingly, Mexico and Ethiopia also use yellow in mourning rituals.

Purple, symbolising spirituality, is worn by widows in Thailand and also among those who follow the Catholic faith, which is why it is a common mourning colour in Brazil. In fact, Brazilians consider it poor taste to wear purple when you are not in mourning.

Red is a tricky one as it can be very divisive between cultures. In South Africa red symbolises mourning and it is believed that the red on the flag is illustrative of the great blood loss the country has suffered on the long road away from apartheid. In China, however, red signifies happiness and must never be worn to a funeral.

Finally, while blue is seen as a very solid, trustworthy colour in many cultures; it is the colour of mourning in both South Korea and Iran.

It is wise to remember though that traditions can change over time. For example, it is now common within the UK to ask people not to wear black at a funeral, particularly at funerals of children. Often mourners will be asked to wear bright colours to signify the happiness the deceased brought to everyone in life or they could be asked to wear the person’s favourite colour as a celebration of life.