October 17, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Why Do Mourners Wear Black to a Funeral?

Traditional funeral attire, explained

Why Do Mourners Wear Black to a Funeral?
Donning black to pay respects to the dead is a custom that dates back thousands of years—but is it relevant in modern bereavement? (Shutterstock)

Though other colors are certainly appropriate to wear at a memorial service, black is the one color most people think of when selecting funeral attire. In North America, people are accustomed to showing the darkness of their hearts on their sleeves. Where did this tradition come from, and why do we continue to dress in black when a loved one has passed away? 

The color of death

The tradition of wearing black when tragedy strikes is sign of respect to the dead. The reasons date back thousands of years.

In Roman times, dark togas were worn by the mourning family, and this tradition has carried forth into contemporary western mourning rituals. 

In Medieval times, black as a color of mourning became even more prominent. Men and women wore black when in mourning, and over time women were expected to continue to wear black for years following the loss of a husband. Black mourning attire for widows was particularly prominent during the autere Victorian era. This custom seems to have waned in recent years, but some more traditional women still do this. 

There are also spiritual reasons for the mourning color of black. In the Bible, death is referred to as an "enemy" (1 Corinthians 15:26), and the promise of an afterlife is the ultimate reward for faith in God. This view of death as a result of sin has permeated the culture of death care for thousands of years, informing many western burial practices.

Black is a traditional color of mourning, but that's not to say that other colors shouldn't be permitted during bereavement. (Shutterstock)

Black is a symbol of death across many cultures, religions and regions around the world. However, the color black also symbolizes evil, aggression and fear in many works of art and literature. Some believe these connotations aren't the most positive message for funerals, and choose to wear other colors, like white, instead. 

Practical funeral wear

Symbolism aside, black is a practical funeral color. Unassuming, modest, low key and simple, it's a color that any person can wear to blend in. Though all funerals are not the same, many families expect the attention at a memorial to be on the life of the deceased person. Dressing to blend in shows you are focused on mourning.

Times are changing

Movies and television often portray mourners as wearing black, but in North America this tradition is becoming less common. People are more often encouraged to wear comfortable (though not casual) modest clothing in neutral colors. 

Sometimes the family hosting a memorial will include special requests for a dress code in the invitation. Often, guests are encouraged to "come as they are" to a funeral, so no one is excluded for lack of a formal funeral outfit. 

Celebration of life

Modern funerals can adhere to traditional mourning rituals, or not. Many times, the only reason for wearing black at a funeral is because those who lived before us did so. 

The way we honor our dead depends on many factors, most importantly the wishes of the deceased person and the surviving family. There is no need to wear black in order to adequately mourn for someone who is important to you. 

Your loved one had a remarkable life. Tell their story, and we’ll publish it online for free.

After creating an online memorial, you can also publish in print in any of over 6,000 newspapers across North America.

Get started for free

Read more stories