Mourning is, in the simplest sense, synonymous with grief over the death of someone. The word is also used to describe a cultural complex of behaviours in which the bereaved participate or are expected to participate. Customs vary between different cultures and evolve over time, though many core behaviors remain constant.
Wearing dark, sombre clothes is one practice followed in many countries, though other forms of dress are also seen. Those most affected by the loss of a loved one often observe a period of grieving, marked by withdrawal from social events and quiet, respectful behavior. People may also follow certain religious traditions for such occasions.
Mourning may also apply to the death of, or anniversary of the passing of, an important individual like a local leader, monarch, religious figure etc. State mourning may occur on such an occasion. In recent years some traditions have given way to less strict practices, though many customs and traditions continue to be followed.
The custom of wearing unadorned black clothing for mourning dates back at least to the Roman Empire, when the Toga pulla made of dark-colored wool was worn during periods of mourning.
Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, distinctive mourning was worn for general as well as personal loss; after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Huguenots in France, Elizabeth I of England and her court are said to have dressed in full mourning to receive the French Ambassador.
Women in mourning and widows wore distinctive black caps and veils, generally in a conservative version of the current fashion.
In rural areas of Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece widows will wear black for the rest of their lives. The immediate family members of the deceased will wear black for an extended period of time.
The colour of deepest mourning among medieval European queens was white rather than black. This tradition survived in Spain until the end of the fifteenth century, and was again practiced by the Spanish-born Belgian Queen Fabiola of King Baudouin's funeral. It was the custom for the Queens of France to wear deuil blanc or "white mourning"; this is the origin of the white wardrobe created by Norman Hartnell for Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, in 1938, when Elizabeth was required to make a state visit to France while in mourning for her mother.
Nowadays there is no special dress or behaviour required for those in mourning and even the wearing of black at funerals is in decline. Traditionally however there were strict social rules to be observed.
By the 19th century, mourning behaviour in England had developed into a complex set of rules, particularly among the upper classes. Women bore the greatest burden of these customs. They involved wearing heavy, concealing, black clothing, and the use of heavy veils of black crêpe. The entire ensemble was colloquially known as widow's weeds (from the Old English "Waed" meaning "garment").
Widows were expected to wear special clothes to indicate that they were in mourning for up to four years after the death. To remove the costume earlier was thought disrespectful to the decedent, and if the widow was still young and attractive, suggestive of potential sexual promiscuity. Those subject to the rules were slowly allowed to re-introduce conventional clothing at different time periods; stages were known by such terms as "full mourning", "half mourning", and similar descriptions.
Friends, acquaintances, and employees wore mourning to a greater or lesser degree depending on their relationship with the deceased. In general, servants wore black armbands when there had been a death in the household.
Mourning was worn for six months for a sibling. Parents would wear mourning for, "as long as they feel so disposed." A widow was supposed to wear mourning for two years and was not supposed to enter society for twelve months. No lady or gentleman in mourning was supposed to attend balls. Amongst polite company the wearing of simply a black arm band was seen as appropriate only for military men (or others compelled to wear uniform in the course of their duties); wearing a black arm band instead of proper mourning clothes was seen as a degradation of proper ettiquette and to be avoided.
Formal mourning culminated during the reign of Queen Victoria. Victoria herself may have had much to do with the practice, owing to her long and conspicuous grief over the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Although fashions began to be more functional and less restrictive for the succeeding Edwardians, appropriate dress for men and women, including that for the period of mourning, was still strictly prescribed and rigidly adhered to.
The rules were gradually relaxed and acceptable practice for both sexes became to dress in dark colours for up to a year after a death in the family. By the late 20th century, this no longer applied.
Mourning generally followed English forms. In the antebellum South, with social mores that rivaled those of England, mourning was just as strictly observed. The sequence in the book and film of Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara scandalizes the attendees at a ball by accepting Rhett Butler’s invitation to dance, despite the fact that she is in mourning for her late husband, accurately reflects the social customs of the time.
Victorian mourning could be quite expensive. At the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy explains to Glinda that she must return home because her aunt and uncle can not afford to go into mourning for her.
The loss of the male head of the family had serious ramifications for American Indian widows; mourning among some tribes included the act of cutting off of a finger.
The degree and duration of public mourning is generally decreed by a protocol officer. It was not unusual for the British court to declare that all citizens should wear full mourning for a specified period after the death of the monarch, or that the members of the court should wear full- or half-mourning for an extended period. On the death of Queen Victoria, (January 22, 1901), the Canada Gazette published an "extra" edition announcing that court mourning would continue until January 24, 1902, and directing the public to wear deep mourning until March 6, 1901, and half-mourning until April 17, 1901.
The black-and-white costumes designed by Cecil Beaton for the Royal Ascot sequence in My Fair Lady were inspired by the "Black Ascot" of 1910, when the court was in mourning for Victoria's son, Edward VII.
All over the world, states usually declare a period of official mourning after the death of a Head of state. The signs may vary but usually include the lowering or posting half-staff of flags on public buildings.
In contrast, in the United Kingdom, the Royal Standard is never flown at half-mast, because there is always a monarch on the throne.
On the other hand, the principle of continuity of the state must be respected. The principle is reflected in the French saying "Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!" ("The king is dead, long live the king!"). Regardless of the formalities of mourning, power must be handed on; if the succession is uncontested, that is best done immediately. Yet a short interruption of work in the civil service may result from one or more days of closing the offices, especially on the day of the state funeral.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Mass of Paul VI, adopted in 1969, allows several options for the liturgical color used in Masses for the Dead. Prior to the liturgical reform, black was the ordinary color for funeral Masses; in the revised use, several options are available. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (§346d-e), violet, white, or black vestments may be worn at Offices and Masses for the dead.
Christian Churches often go into mourning symbolically during the period of Lent to commemorate the sacrifice and death of Jesus. Customs vary among the denominations and include the covering or removal of statuary, icons and paintings, and use of special liturgical colours, such as violet/purple, during Lent and Holy Week.
In more formal congregations, parishioners also dress according to specific forms during Holy Week, particularly on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, where it is still common to wear black or sombre dress or, as mentioned, the liturgical color purple.
Death is not seen as the final "end", but is seen as a turning point in the seemingly endless journey of the indestructible "atman" or the soul through innumerable bodies of animals and people. Hence Hinduism, prohibits excessive mourning or lamentation upon death, as this can hinder the easy passage of the departed soul towards its journey ahead: "As mourners will not help the dead in this world, therefore (the relatives) should not weep, but perform the obsequies to the best of their power."
Hindu mourning is described in dharma shastras. It begins immediately after the cremation of the body and ends on the morning of the thirteenth day. Traditionally the body is cremated within 24 hours after death, however the cremations are not held after sunset and before sunrise. Immediately after the death an oil lamp is lit near the deceased and this lamp is kept burning for three days. Hinduism associates death with ritual impurity for the immediate blood family of the deceased, hence during these mourning days, the immediate blood family must not perform any religious ceremonies (except funerals), must not visit temples or other sacred places, must not serve the sages (holy men), must not give alms, must not read or recite from the sacred scriptures nor can they attend social functions like marriages, parties etc. Hence the family of the deceased is not expected to serve any visiting guests food or drink, and it is customary that the visiting guests do not eat or drink in the house where the death has occurred. The family in mourning are required to bathe twice a day, eat a single simple vegetarian meal and try to cope up with their loss. On the day on which the death has occurred, the family do not cook, hence usually close family and friends will provide food for the mourning family. White clothing (the colour of purity) is also the colour of mourning and many will wear white during the mourning period.
On the morning of the thirteenth day, a Shraddha ceremony is performed. The main ceremony involves a fire sacrifice, in which offerings are given to the ancestors and to gods, to ensure the deceased has a peaceful afterlife. Typically after the ceremony, the family cleans and washes all the idols in the family shrine and flowers, fruits, water and purified food is offered to the gods. Now the family is ready to break the period of mourning and return back to daily life.
Loved ones and relatives are to observe a 3-day mourning period. Widows observe an extended mourning period (Iddah), 4 months and 10 days long, in accordance with the Qur'an 2:234. During this time, she is not to remarry, move from her home, or wear decorative clothing or jewelry.
Grief at the death of a beloved person is normal, and weeping for the dead is allowed in Islam. What is prohibited is to express grief by wailing (Bewailing refers to mourning in a loud voice), shrieking, beating the chest and cheeks, tearing hair or clothes, breaking things or scratching faces or saying phrases that makes a Muslim lose faith.
Islamic scholars consider this directive a balance between mourning a husband's death and protection of the widow from censure that she became interested in re-marrying too soon after her husband’s death. This is also to ascertain whether or not a lady is pregnant.
The most known and central stage is Shiva, which is a Jewish mourning practice in which people adjust their behaviour as an expression of their bereavement for the week immediately after the burial. In the West, typically, mirrors are covered and a small tear is made in an item of clothing to indicate a lack of interest in personal vanity. The bereaved dress simply and sit on the floor, short stools or boxes rather than chairs when receiving the condolences of visitors. English speakers use the expression "to sit shiva".