Etiquette of Mourning - 1887


The Widow Consults with a Friend During Mourning.

The Widow Consults with a Friend During Mourning. Peterson's Magazine, April 1885. GGA Image ID # 2178d121c9


The Difficulty in Talking About Death and Burials

It's difficult to talk about death and burials without hurting someone's feelings. In England, the Duke of Sutherland suggested that instead of using coffins, the dead should be buried in wicker baskets with fern leaves as shrouds so that their bodies could return to the earth more quickly.

However, this idea was criticized as irreverent. People who support cremation also face criticism despite the fact that many find the current funeral practices and equipment to be gloomy.

Death is a painful subject for everyone, and the dress code for funerals, such as wearing black, can be a difficult reminder of our grief. This is especially true given that we profess to believe in the resurrection.

Some suggest that blue or white may be a more fitting color, as they represent the sky and the soul's light.


Mourning Dresses

It is customary to wear black as a sign of respect for those who have passed away and also as a way of mourning for ourselves. However, this practice goes against our Lord's gentle and cheerful nature.

While a mourning dress protects a person from unwanted attention, it also harms the skin and eyes. The friction caused by the black veil can lead to sores and abrasions on the nose and forehead. Moreover, it can be dangerous for the eyes, especially those already weakened by tears.


The Duration of Mourning Periods

The English have set a limit on the duration of mourning periods. They allow crape to be worn for six months, even for the closest relative, and mourning is not to exceed a year.

The mourning period for a husband's death is considered the most profound mourning for a wife. In England, the traditional attire for a widow during this time includes bombazine and crape, a widow's cap, and a long, thick veil. Some widows even opt for a black crepe lisse cap, typically white.


A Widow’s First Mourning Dress

In the United States, a widow's first mourning dress is usually covered with crape, a costly and unpleasant material easily damaged by dampness and dust. This dress is traditionally considered a form of penitence and self-mortification, as well as expensive and unattractive.

However, there are now other, more pleasant fabrics that mimic the dead black, lusterless look that is considered respectful of the deceased. These fabrics are less expensive and more comfortable to wear.

For heavy winter dresses, Henrietta cloth and imperial serge are popular choices, while Tamise cloth, Bayonnaise, grenadine, nuns' veiling, and American silk are used for lighter options.


Some Mourning Customs

In contrast to England, the United States does not have as many elaborate mourning customs. In England, mourning customs include hiring mutes, nodding plumes, and giving gifts of gloves, bands, and rings.

Lady Georgiana Milnor, a close friend of the Archbishop, wrote a book denouncing the excessive mourning ceremonies of the time. She ordered her own body to be buried in a plain pine coffin and instructed her servants and relatives not to wear mourning. They followed her wishes exactly.

Traditionally, the proper funeral etiquette involved using black, cloth-covered caskets with silver decorations carried by pallbearers. Pallbearers were given a white scarf and a pair of black gloves. Although funeral directors often made a profit by reselling these items, it was not always the case.

Unfortunately, mourning was a very costly affair that often financially strained families. Despite this, even the poorest people would go to great lengths to observe this custom. They usually wore the best mourning attire despite being unable to afford it.


Mourning Etiquette

Wearing dark black clothing to funerals is considered a sign of respect for the deceased unless a hereditary belief in appeasing the spirits of the departed dictates otherwise.

Mourning etiquette dictates that widows wear deep mourning clothing, typically woolen fabric and crape, for around two years or even for life in America. Children wear similar clothing for their parents for a year, after which they can lighten it with black silk trimmed with crape.

In the past, people wore half-mourning clothes in various shades of gray, purple, or lilac. Nowadays, people generally wear combinations of black and white. Wearing black silk without crape achieves complementary mourning.

The French have three categories of mourning: profound, ordinary, and half-mourning. In deep mourning, woolen clothes are the only option; silk and woolen fabrics are allowed in ordinary mourning, and gray and violet are permitted in half-mourning.

An American lady might find the French mourning customs surprising as they often seem cheerful and joyful. In France, mourning for a husband lasts one year and six weeks, consisting of six months of deep mourning, six months of ordinary mourning, and six weeks of half-mourning.


Customary Periods of Mourning

Observing a certain mourning period is customary, depending on the relationship with the deceased. For example, six months of mourning are appropriate for a wife, father, or mother. This period consists of three months of deep mourning and three months of half-mourning.

For a grandparent, two and a half months of slight mourning is sufficient, while two months are required for a brother or sister. One of these two months should be in deep mourning.

An uncle or aunt requires three weeks of ordinary black. In America, women sometimes wear black for extended periods, even up to seven or ten years, for relatives or acquaintances they may not have known well.

However, it is not required and can be harmful to children who are constantly exposed to their mother's deep mourning. It is recommended that mourning be limited to two or three weeks, as is the custom in France.


Social Activities, Time to Mourn, Wearing Black

In recent times, it has become a trend for mourners to shorten their retirement from social activities, meaning they spend less time on formal visits and do not hold any celebrations at home.

Traditionally, mourners wear black for two years for a spouse, one year for parents, and one year for siblings. After this period, lighter materials can replace the heavy black.

It has also become common for ladies to wear small black gauze veils over their faces and throw the heavy crape veil back over their hats. It is considered appropriate to wear a quiet black dress when attending a funeral, although it is unnecessary.

Friends should visit the bereaved family within a month, but they should not expect to see them. Intimate friends may express their sympathy through kind notes, gifts of flowers, or any thoughtful and appropriate testimonial of compassion.

Those who wish to express their regret for the deceased more conventionally can mourn using cards and notepaper. Still, expansive borders of black may appear ostentatious and are considered poor taste.


Significance of Mourning Practices

Undoubtedly, all the things mentioned earlier are appropriate in their own way. However, a narrow black border indicates loss and a coal-black gloom of an inch. Wearing handkerchiefs with a two-inch square of white cambric and a four-inch black border may be criticized.

A cheerful young widow in Washington was once spotted dancing at a reception, several months after the death of her soldier husband, with a long black veil and holding one of these ink-stained handkerchiefs in her black-gloved hand. "A bystander said she should have dipped it in blood."

In such circumstances, we learn how much significance is attached to the grief expressed by a mourning veil. Soldiers, sailors, and courtiers wear poignant and compelling mourning.

A flag draped with crape, a gray cadet's shirt with a black band, a long piece of crape on a senator's left arm, or a black weed on a hat always touches us. They would even suggest that the lighter the black, the more thorough the expression of the feeling of one's heart.

If we love our dead, there is no danger that we will forget them. Wearing "the customary suit of solemn black" is unnecessary when it can be worn in our hearts.


Black Clothing During Mourning

It is expected to wear black clothing during mourning, and jet embroidery is a beautiful addition to black silk or French crape dresses. However, lace is not typically worn during mourning except woolen yak lace on a cloth cloak or mantilla.

Black lace on white silk can be worn during half-mourning, but this is still a matter of debate. Diamond ornaments in black enamel and pearls in black are allowed even during the deepest mourning.

Lockets, sleeve buttons, or pins with the deceased's initials spelled out in black brilliants or pearls are also acceptable. It is crucial never to wear gold ornaments while in mourning.

When dressing an American widow, the famous designer Worth requested to see a photograph of her to ensure the black dress he designed would be something she would appreciate.


The Second Stage of Mourning

During the second stage of court mourning, the attire consists of white silk embroidered with black jet, along with black gloves. In England, deep red is considered an appropriate alternative to mourning black if the wearer is required to attend a wedding during the first year of mourning.

Hence, at St. George's, Hanover Square, it is common to see a widow dressed in a magnificent red brocade or velvet, assisting at the wedding of her child. She then discards this attire immediately after the wedding and returns to solemn black.

The question of black gloves often troubles those who must wear mourning during the hot summer months. The black kid glove can be uncomfortably warm and smudged, leaving marks on the hand and soiling the handkerchief and face.

However, the Swedish kid glove is now more popular, and the silk glove is designed with such precision and so many buttons that it is equally stylish, cooler, and more comfortable.


Appropriate and Dignified Mourning

In England, mourning bonnets were worn instead of ordinary bonnets. They are still made in the traditional cottage shape and are useful for carrying the heavy veil and shading the face.

The Queen has always worn this style of bonnet, and she never lays her widow's cap aside. With her long white veil hanging down her back when she appears at court, it is the most fitting dress she has ever worn.

There is something appropriate and dignified in her adherence to mourning dress for such grief as hers. It fully expresses her sad isolation because a queen can have no near friends. The whole English nation sympathized with her grief and commended her black dress.

It's not right to criticize a mother who wears mourning for her children. If it is any comfort to her to wrap herself in crape, she ought to do so. The world has no right to quarrel with those who prefer to put ashes on their heads.

However, we can criticize the mockery, the everyday absurdities, and the affectations that so readily lend themselves to caricature in the name of mourning. Talking about "ornamental," "becoming," or "complementary" mourning evokes a ghoul-like ghastliness.


Ending the Mourning Period

People of good sense tend to dress appropriately without going to extremes in any direction. For example, mourners should not wear clothing that is too heavy or decorated with thick crape, which can cause discomfort. Instead, they should opt for a quiet mourning dress that tells the story of grief without being too dramatic.

Furthermore, mourning clothing must be discarded gradually as time passes. It is not advisable for a young widow to suddenly switch to colorful clothing soon after the loss of a loved one. This would appear insensitive and inappropriate.

If a person chooses to stop wearing black, they should transition into quieter clothing that reflects the slow and graceful retirement of mourning. As time passes, the feeling of grief yields to the influence of time, leading to a sense of resignation and cheerfulness. We do not forget our loved ones who have passed away, but we mourn for them with a sense of acceptance that no longer causes us anguish.


Process Before the Funeral

Before a funeral, the female members of the family usually only see their closest friends. Conversely, the men must consult the clergy and officials managing the ceremony.

It is customary to hold the funeral service in a church where the deceased's friends can attend and pay their last respects without overcrowding a private home.

Pallbearers, who have been invited by note, gather at the home of the deceased and accompany the remains to their final resting place after the service at the church.

Typically, female family friends do not attend the church or the burial, although this is entirely up to their discretion, and they may participate if they wish.


Undertaker Responsibilities and Etiquette After a Funeral

After a funeral service, only close family members return to the house, and it is expected that a grieving wife or mother will not meet anyone outside her family for several weeks.

The undertaker is responsible for preparing the house for the funeral. They remove the furniture from the drawing room and place campstools in the available space. The clergyman leads the service at the head of the coffin, surrounded by relatives.

If the body is not disfigured by disease, it is usually dressed in the clothes worn in life and placed in an open casket, as if resting on a sofa. Friends are invited to take a last look, but it can be a somewhat eerie experience to make the dead look like they are still alive.

A man's body is typically dressed in black, while a young boy is laid out in his everyday clothes. However, boys and girls look more appropriately dressed in white cashmere robes.


Adorning the Coffin

The tradition of adorning the coffin with flowers is a beautiful one. However, in large cities, it has become so excessive and is often based solely on the amount of money spent that many individuals now request no flowers.

When a lady's parents pass away in England, she is expected to wear crape and bombazine (or any equivalent lusterless cloth) for three months. During this time, she refrains from attending any social events.

After that, she can wear lusterless silks trimmed with crape and jet and attend court if commanded. She can also participate in concerts and family weddings without violating any etiquette. After six months, she reduces her mourning attire to black and white and can attend small dinners or the "drawing room."


The Time for Socializing After Mourning

In this country, it is customary for individuals mourning for a parent, child, sibling, or spouse to refrain from attending public events such as concerts, dinners, and parties for three months.

After this period, attending a concert is deemed acceptable, but attending the opera, dinner, or a party before six months have passed is considered inappropriate and disrespectful.

Additionally, wearing deep mourning attire to such occasions is frowned upon. However, if an individual chooses not to observe mourning customs, they may attend any event without issue. But, those who wear mourning attire must abide by the etiquette associated with it. It is also worth noting that a widow should not be seen at a ball, theatre, or opera until after a year has passed.


After the Death of a Loved One

Many people believe that it is disrespectful for a woman to go outside, drive, or walk without a deep crape veil over her face for at least two years after the death of a loved one. It is often considered a sign of carelessness towards the deceased if a person lightens their mourning before this period.

Wearing crape for two years is seen as a commendable act by many, but it is debatable whether this practice harms the welfare and happiness of the living. Children are often affected negatively by their mother's shrouding in mourning, and men generally dislike it.

While it is understandable that a woman may choose to wear mourning for the rest of her life, it is a matter of concern whether this practice is detrimental to the living.


A Sign of Mourning

Anyone who has lost a close friend or family member is expected to observe a period of mourning for at least six months. It is advisable to refrain from participating in social events and other frivolous activities during this time.

If one chooses to wear black as a sign of mourning, one must adhere to the customs and traditions associated with the practice. It is important to note that individuals with weak eyes or lungs should avoid wearing a heavy crape veil over their faces. This type of veil contains arsenic, which can harm vision and respiration.


Based on an Article by Sherwood, Mrs. John, “Chapter XXI. Etiquette of Mourning,” in Manners and Social Usages, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887, p. 188-199. The accompanying illustration for this article "The Widow Consulting with a Friend," is from Peterson's Magazine, Philadelphia, Vol. LXXXVII, No. 4, April 1885, p. 320.


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