Harold White News

The history and the future of wearing black to funerals

Entrenched in tradition, the colour black has a significant place in funerals, but where did it come from, and is it ok to wear something different?

It’s widely accepted that if you are attending a funeral, you wear black. Many believe it is a mark of respect, a moniker for sorrow, a symbol of mourning. Some people find this unwritten rule comforting, others feel it adds a weight to proceedings. This is often a reason many choose to push back against tradition and request colourful clothing to bring brightness to the day. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to saying goodbye, but despite the growing trend in bringing colour and individuality to a funeral, it’s worth looking at how we came to associate black attire with funerals in the first place.

Tracing the tradition

To understand this, we have to go right back to the sixth century where it was used in the Christian Church for its spiritual darkness of the soul, This is according to a 2002 article in The Atlantic, which goes on to highlight that by the 14th century black was widely associated with death. However, The Atlantic also points out that white and brown were also accepted as colours associated with funerals and death, both of which were easy to acquire. But black, that was hard, and expensive to achieve…

It was Elizabeth I’s 1603 funeral that set black as the the go-to choice for funerals, largely due to its expense and high profile. Kate Thornton’s Atlantic article explains that to get this luxurious colour required multiple rounds of costly dying using the red roots of the herb madder, and the small blue coloured leaves of the woad flower.

As well as black being out of reach financially for many families, there also were rules around colour and class, meaning people were identifiable by the garments they wore. Jump back to Queen Elizabeth I’s funeral in 1603, and a growing middle class was emerging eager to climb the ranks of society. As the old saying goes, ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you’ve got.’ And so black slowly started to slip into the mainstay of funeral dress – yet still at a considerable cost.

By the 19th century, industrialised processes and new technology meant that producing black fabric was no longer so expensive. Savvy businessmen used this opportunity to manufacture black garments for the masses, with large shops across London vying for everyone’s business. The thirst for climbing social status also led to wider publication of etiquette guides, that included advice on mourning periods, dictating protocol on how long a widow should wear black for to signify her loss.

Dressed in his black pallbearer uniform, our grandfather Harold White attends a funeral in Wood Street, Walthamstow. Approx. 1953

A brighter outlook?

However, today some people feel that a procession of black clad mourners carries a solemnity which may not befit the personality or the wishes of the departed. While some honour tradition and take comfort in it, others are looking for options to say goodbye in different ways. We are at a point in time where attitudes toward colour at a funeral are significantly more relaxed. It’s often seen as a modern expression of happiness and the joy associated with a person. A way to channel all the positivity of your loved one’s life. This shift could be attributed towards the shift in how we frame a funeral. These days many families choose to have a ‘celebration of life’ as a way of honouring the deceased’s personality, vigour and legacy.

But while we are in a period where colour can be embraced and utilised, we might do well to not turn our back completely on wearing black to a funeral. Back in the aforementioned Atlantic article, Kate Thornton writes, ‘the donning of subdued black clothing can be an equalizer. In its best moments, it is a common costume for people unified in grief.’

And herein lies the power of wearing black at funerals. There’s a sense of togetherness, a mutual understanding of the situation, the occasion, the memory. Black doesn’t have to be seen as bleak, sad and heavy, but as a subtle base line. A foundation on which to carry the day. That unification that ties us together, and shows a shared loss.

Back to the idea of black being a mark of respect, it can sometimes be overlooked as to who we are showing respect to. It’s not a nod to the dead, but the living. An unspoken sign that says, ‘I understand this is a difficult time, that I see your grief.’

At Harold White, we help families create the service that’s right for them. That honours their loved one in the most fitting way possible. We see the significance of solidarity and comfort, but know that this can be achieved in many different ways. Black has a deep-rooted place in funerals, but that doesn’t mean you have to abide by it.

If you would like help and advice in organising a funeral service, please speak to one of our team.


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