Black — The Colour of Death

In most Western countries, black is worn as a sign of mourning, but different cultures have varying ideas about the correct and sincerest method of expressing grief, hence, various colours of mourning are found around the globe. However, black is considered the most befitting for sorrow and grief, as blackness and bleakness symbolise the deprivation of life in nature. Therefore this colour, since ancient times, has been preferred in most countries as an outward indication of mourning. 

The Greek philosopher, Plutarch, considered white fitting for the dead, as it is pure and least defiled; hence, in ancient Greece, matrons attired themselves in white on the death of their husbands. In ancient Rome, both black and white signified mourning. Roman widows used to wear white to mourn their husbands, and throughout Italy, a white band worn around the head was the sign of widowhood. White as a colour of mourning was also known in England and other European countries, where it was customary in olden times for all mourners to dress in white if the deceased was a virgin. A pair of white gloves was carried at the head of the funeral procession, the white gloves considered symbols of love and purity. At the turn of the century, it was still traditional in rural England to hang a garland of white paper roses over the pew of unmarried villagers who had died in the flower of their age.

In certain Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and India, white is regarded as the colour of purity and holiness. It is therefore regarded as the appropriate colour of mourning and worn by those attending funerals. Other cultures express grief by wearing yellow or blue. The ancient Egyptians regarded yellow as the colour denoting death, as nature in the Nile Valley typically faded to yellow, indicating transience. Syrians and Armenians wear sky blue and Ethiopians, grey, the colour of their native earth, which receives the dead, symbolically typifying human mortality.

Black is the commonest indication of mourning, particularly in Europe, apparently originating from ancient Roman tradition. However, throughout the centuries, many varied explanations for this custom have arisen through superstitious speculation. Some contend that wearing black, as a colour of mourning is not done as a mark of respect for the dead, but to acknowledge humankind’s inferiority in the face of the Grim Reaper. Alternatively, the custom is attributed to the belief that the devil cannot see or discern black; hence, anyone wearing this colour is invisible to him. Thus, black mourning clothes were worn in an attempt to trick the devil, always on the lookout to snatch newly departed souls and, therefore, considered ever-present at funerals. Another belief about black mourning clothes was that everyone dressed in black looked the same; hence, the ghost of the deceased was unable to recognise anyone, especially women, as they also wore veils. Therefore, the dead could not linger with those attending the funeral.

In the past, periods of mourning for different degrees of blood relationship were exactly laid down and strictly followed. Depending on the closeness of the relationship, it was almost compulsory to wear black. A widow even continued donning this colour for the rest of her life, a custom still found in many Catholic countries, especially in rural areas. Now, except in Roman Catholic and South American countries, the outward formalities of grief and mourning have been largely dispensed with.


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App