Why Do We Wear Black to a Funeral?
Why do people wear black to funerals? Am I expected to wear black black to a funeral? What if I don’t want people wearing black to my funeral? These are common questions that arise when attending a funeral or planning for a loved one who has recently passed. To answer some of these questions, let’s look at the history of the tradition and how it has progressed through the ages.
How did the tradition start?
The tradition of wearing dark, plain clothing as a sign of mourning dates back to at least the Roman Empire, when togas made of dark-colored wool, known as a toga pulla, were worn to symbolize grief and distress and as a symbol for mourning.
In England throughout medieval times, women were expected to wear black caps and veils when their husbands passed away. The popularity of wearing black emerged during the Renaissance and continued until the 19th century as the cultural expectation, especially for women. During mourning periods and funeral services, women mourners wore dark-colored, full-length corseted garments, at times including long trains that would need to be lifted as you walk.
In rural parts of Latin America and the Mediterranean, widows will wear black for the remainders of their lives. For Native American widows, the loss of the male head of the family had serious ramifications — mourning among some tribes included the extreme act of cutting off a finger.
How about wearing white to a funeral?
In medieval times, white was the color of mourning in many places, including Spain and the Orient. The use of white is still practiced in India, China and most African countries. In countries where Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced more frequently, it would not be uncommon to see a funeral where everyone dresses in white, symbolizing purity. Historically in Japan, a country with a combination of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, people commonly wore white dresses and kimonos. Nowadays, however, most Japanese people have made the transition to wearing the black attire like their western counterparts.
One religion, Islam, remains neutral when it comes to what color should be worn at funerals. In lieu of a focus on clothing color, attendees are expected to not wear any elaborate jewelry as well as dressing modestly as is standard in Muslim tradition.
What if I don’t want people wearing black to my funeral?
It is not uncommon for funerals to have “themes,” like a party would have. Some people want a traditional funeral where you usually wear darker, more somber colors, while others want a celebration. One funeral encouraged guests to wear Hawaiian shirts. Most people assume that dark colors and plain clothing is appropriate for funerals, so unless you specify otherwise, that’s probably what you can expect. Make your wishes known by planning your own service ahead of time.
Is wearing black still expected today?
In the United States, the expectations vary by region. In general, an outfit worn to a funeral should be fairly conservative, both in terms of color and style. It is expected that one dresses up for a funeral—men should avoid wearing jeans, T-shirts, sweats or any other clothing considered “casual.” Women should wear a skirt, dress, or nice pants and avoid strapless or revealing attire. A good rule of thumb — dress as you would at church or a job interview.
Proper dress is a show of respect to the deceased and to the grieving family. Take the weather into consideration —burial services are outside, whether rain, shine, or snow. Sunglasses are also generally acceptable to hide red, tearful eyes. If you are trying to look respectful, you will fit right in with everyone else. Above all, your being there is all that really counts.