Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Western Mourning Traditions – After the Funeral

"Lady in Mourning" by Mendgen (1930)
In secular times such as ours the rites of mourning have become somewhat vague. Generally speaking, there is a notion that one wears black for a period of time – though no one really expects black to be worn at any time other than at the funeral – and sometimes a group of people may wear black armbands for a certain period, such as a football team at a sports event. There is also a half-remembered tradition that widows should wait for a year before becoming romantically involved with someone new. In the last few decades a new quasi-tradition has arisen whereby the bereaved are encouraged to book some sessions with a grief counsellor or psychologist. Beyond these things it is hard to pin down Western mourning traditions, even Debrett’s fails to say much on the matter, advising of little more than the intricacies of funeral arrangements while acknowledging:
“It is only in our increasingly secular times, when death has become something to be ignored, avoided and indeed feared, that these most final and utterly inevitable rites of passage are often, quite wrongly, skimped on [Morgan, Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners at 96].”
The truth of the matter is that we are mostly left to invent our own way of mourning. Society at large, as fragmented as it is, will expect little from us once the funeral is over. The insensitive will hope that we will simply move on and adapt to the new normal as quickly as possible – the grief of others and the reality of death is simply too awkward to deal with. Those who care will probably encourage us to do “whatever feels right” and treat us gently (unless they are overwhelmed by their own grief). Those who mourn are often left grasping onto thin air, with few known traditions to fall back on – at such times looking at historic traditions may give the bereaved something to work with.

Roman mourning traditions

After proper funeral rites had been observed the dead were thought to join the Di Manes (protecting spirits of the dead – usually ancestors) and as such offerings could be made to them thereafter at their tombs outside the city, especially during the important festival of the Parentalia (13-21 February). Usual offerings included wine, food and flowers, including wreaths. Amongst the wealthy a wax likeness of the dead might be made and placed in a wooden shrine in “the most conspicuous position of the house” (Polybius, cited in Warrior at 33). Until the time of the funeral, which was usually a week or so after the death, the bereaved family oftentimes deliberately did not wash or care for themselves; they wore dark clothes, did not shave or comb their hair and withdrew completely from public life (Scheid at 168-169). After the funeral the family went through a purification rite involving water and fire, and the sweeping of the house with a broom, but this did not signal the end of the mourning period altogether. There were longer designated mourning periods and those who failed to observe them were “placed in public disgrace” (Paulus, cited in Shelton at 94):
  • Parents and children over six were expected to be mourned for a year.
  • Children under six were expected to be mourned for a month (though it is very doubtful that such a death was recovered from so swiftly, even while infant mortality was so sadly common).
  • A husband was mourned for ten months. How long a late wife was mourned for is unclear but it appears that in general women (widowed or not) were expected to mourn more deeply and for longer than their menfolk.
  • Close blood relations were expected to be mourned for eight months.
During these months of mourning people were expected to avoid parties, and the wearing of jewellery and luxurious items. What the mourning period was like (for some) is immortalised in this beautiful letter written by Cicero to his close friend around a month after the death of his adult daughter:
“I have isolated myself, in this lonely region, from all human conversation. In the morning I hide myself in the dense impenetrable forest and don’t emerge until nightfall. Next to you, solitude is my best friend. My only form of communication now is through books, but even my reading is interrupted by fits of weeping. I resist as best I can these urges to cry, but I am not yet strong enough [cited in Shelton at 123].”
A recreated Rune stone: ribevikingecenter.dk 
Germanic mourning traditions
On ancient Germanic mourning traditions Tacitus wrote:
“They soon leave off weeping and lamenting but are slow to put aside their grief and sorrow. It is the honourable thing for women to mourn, for men to remember the dead [Tacitus at 51].”
In the Viking age there are numerous references to widows dying shortly after their husbands as a result “of grief (Davidson, at 151), which suggests that widows were expected to mourn deeply, though what they did to signify mourning is largely unknown. We do know that offerings were sometimes made at burial mounds, and we also know that bereaved Vikings sometimes erected rune monuments in honour of the dead. Ibn Fadlan records that these could be inscribed in wood and placed in the middle of a burial mound, however these carvings are now lost to the archeological record. What remains are rune memorials carved in stone, which were not necessarily situated near the remains of the deceased. Most rune-stones were free-standing natural boulders and typically named the person or people who caused the carvings to be named as well as the name of the dead person honoured. Some lines about the kind of life the deceased lived might be included (eg, “journeyed boldly and made money among the Greeks”) as well as the manner of death  (eg, in battle, while a-viking or by drowning). The planning and making of these rune-stones was likely an integral feature of the mourning process.

Christian mourning traditions
Christianity brought with it a wide range of mourning practices. The Church offered, and still offers, support structures for the bereaved, including the possibility of various rites, a place for prayer (both the church and the grave) and behavioural guidelines for the bereaved. From the 18th to the early 20th century these guidelines included variations of the following:
  • Mourning periods were staggered. Deep mourning meant wearing all black (or all white), avoiding patterned fabric, avoiding ostentatious jewellery and jewellery with coloured stones, and abstaining from parties, celebrations and frivolous entertainments. During the next period of mourning wearing mostly black with some white, or mostly white with some black, was suggested. In the final stage of mourning black, white, grey, subdued colours and patterns might be worn.
  • Widows and widowers were advised to avoid romantic or sexual attachments for at least one year, with up to two and a half years of mourning recommended. It was not a problem for widows to conspicuously mourn for the rest of their lives, by wearing black, if they chose to do so. However, remarriage was permitted after one year, especially for impecunious widows; if this should happen outward displays of mourning should cease.
  • For those who lost either a parent or a child deep mourning was recommended for at least six months, if not one year, with up to two years recommended.  Underage children were not to mourn for as long as adults.
  • For those who lost a grandparent or sibling, mourning was recommended for at least three months, with up to eight months recommended.
  • For those who lost aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews or other family members mourning was recommended for at least one month, with up to six months recommended.
  • For the loss of a friend a period of at least three weeks was recommended.

Suggestions for mourning, after the funeral 
"Love's Melancholy" by Meyer (1866)
There is clearly no particular way that anyone should or must mourn, and we are free to take up any traditions that resonate, while discarding those that seem ill suited. Drawing from some of the historical traditions recorded above (and from personal experience) some or none of what follows may be helpful:
  • Give oneself permission and time to mourn. One way to do this might be to assign oneself a flexible time period for “deep mourning”. It may be that for those of us who must put on a stiff upper lip and go to work only weeks after our loss we segment our grief – at work we are in light mourning, while at other times we are in deep mourning.
  • Buy and wear black clothes, and avoid wearing bright colours.
  • Buy and wear unostentatious jewellery featuring black stones such as obsidian, onyx, or even black diamonds. Alternately, as both black and white are traditional mourning colours, wear jewellery with white stones, such as pearls.*
  • Buy and wear jewellery that can be engraved with a memorial message.
  • Widows might continue to wear wedding and engagement rings but supplement them with mourning jewellery (ie, jewellery with black stones), or they may remove wedding and engagement rings entirely and replace them with mourning jewellery.
  • Avoid parties and large celebratory gatherings for a period of time.
  • Set up a space or a place dedicated to the lost loved one (in the home or elsewhere); this might be a quasi-shrine where you light a candle, or even make other offerings, or it might be something more secular, such as a memorial of some kind. 
  • Think of ways to pay tribute to the life of a loved one – create a work of art in his or her honour, set up an annual feast of remembrance with family, have a beautiful tombstone created, or whatever you think will pay fitting homage to the deceased.
  • Explore religious traditions (that resonate for you) that provide means for honouring your lost loved one. Many religions have specific prayers and rituals that honour the dead. Some people will want to do their own thing and create their own traditions, while others may take great comfort in participating in the well-established rites of a major religion.**
* According to crystal therapists the following black and white gems may have healing properties such as:
  • Black diamond = enhances courage, helps diminish emotional pain and fear.
  • Black obsidian = dispels negativity and pain, heals destructive emotions.
  • Hematite = increases optimism and courage, restores equilibrium.
  • Jet / black amber = protection against negative energies.
  • Onyx = increases emotional strength during times of stress or confusion. 
  • Pearl = calming, increases faith, integrity and emotional balance.
  • White diamond = connection to the spiritual realms, amplifies energy.
** For me this is Nichiren Buddhism as practiced by the Soka Gakkai International, whose daily practice includes prayers for the dead.

Sources: Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2, Cambridge Uni Press; bellatory.comDavidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin; econdolence.comElder Edda: Myths, Gods and Heroes from the Viking World, Penguin; Encyclopaedia BritannicaIbn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, Penguin;  Morgan, Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, Headline; newworldencyclopedia.orgromanchristendom.blogspot.comromanpagan.blogspot.comShelton, As the Romans Did (2nd ed), Oxford University Press; Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, penelope.uchicago.edu Tacitus, Agricola and GermanyOxford World's Classics;  traditioninaction.orgWarrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook, Focus.


Gold with pearls and a diamond, England (1869)
Gold and pearls with urn on enamel, England (1815)
Gold and enamel, England (1810)
(Presumably) Gold with pearl and enamel, England (1885)
Black and white enamel on gold, England (1772)
Gold and black enamel, England (1767)
Gold, diamond, pearl and enamel, (probably) England (1869)
Gold and (probably) jet, England (1831) 
Gold and pearl (and hair of the deceased), England (1898)

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheist and on Facebook 


  1. Your post coincides with a personal event I have suffered in these recent days because I have lost my mother some weeks ago. For this personal circumstance I have written on my blog an invocation to the Manes.
    Anyway, I think that, everyone has his/her own reaction/relation to death according to his/her personal attitude, contingent conditions in time and space, relation to destiny, etc. Moreover it is different when we think about i.e. a parent's death (according to his/her age), the death of a son/daughter or a friend etc. Personal reactions may thus highly vary. And it is different when we think about our death and the others' death...

    Culture of course plays a significant role in the issue. I'd like just to mention some little traditional habits we have in our family we have adopted also in occasion of the recent death of my mother. Soon after her death we have opened the windows of the room where she laid: it's probably an old tradition from southern Italy (where my family comes from) just to symbolize the possibility to the soul to be free and reach the sky. I think also that this tradition is connected to the roman habit of cremation. Ancient Romans observed during cremation the smoke line ascending to the sky (see the helical columns in roman architecture) as axial symbol of the links between the Three Worlds...
    Oooops... It's a very long and complex issue and I'm writing too much as usual....
    Your post is very interesting and well written.... :)

    1. thank you for these words and allow me to give you my condolences regarding the death of your mother. I hesitate to say too much because it is always difficult to find the right words in these situations and because I too am bereaved (a different kind of death, but for me even more painful than the death of my beloved mother over 6 years ago) and it is causing me to question everything I was doing before, while leaving me quite unclear as what path to take from here. I stumble through a black void and do not know up from down, only that I must keep on walking towards the dim lights that seem to offer hope.