The History Main Page New York City Directory The World Of Society Main Directory    

Etiquette Of Mourning


There is no possibility of touching upon the subject of death and burial, and the conditions under which funerals should be conducted, without hurting some one's feelings. The Duke of Sutherland's attempt in England to do away with the dreadful shape which causes a shudder to all who have lost a friend that of the coffin--was called irreverent, because he suggested that the dead should be buried in wicker-work baskets, with fern-leaves for shrouds, so that the poor clay might the more easily return to mother earth. Those who favor cremation suffer again a still more frantic disesteem; and yet every one deplores the present gloomy apparatus and dismal observances of our occasions of mourning.

Death is still to the most Christian and resigned heart a very terrible fact, a shock to all who live, and its surroundings, do what we will, are painful. "I smell the mould above the rose," says Hood, in his pathetic lines on his daughter's death. Therefore, we have a difficulty to contend with in the wearing of black, which is of itself, to begin with, negatory of our professed belief in the resurrection. We confess the logic of despair when we drape ourselves in its gloomy folds. The dress which we should wear, one would think, might be blue, the color of the sky, or white, in token of light which the redeemed soul has reached.

Custom, which makes slaves of us all, has decreed that we shall wear black, as a mark of respect to those we have lost, and as a shroud for ourselves, protesting against the gentle ministration of light and cheerfulness with which our Lord ever strives to reach us. This is one side of the question; but, again, one word as to its good offices. A mourning dress does protect a woman while in deepest grief against the untimely gayety of a passing stranger. It is a wall, a cell of refuge. Behind a black veil she can hide herself as she goes out for business or recreation, fearless of any intrusion.

The black veil, on the other hand, is most unhealthy: it harms the eyes and it injures the skin. As it rubs against the nose and forehead it is almost certain to cause abrasions, and often makes an annoying sore. To the eyes enfeebled by weeping it is sure to be dangerous, and most oculists now forbid it.

The English, from whom we borrow our fashion in funeral matters, have a limitation provided by social law which is a useful thing. They now decree that crape shall only be worn six months, even for the nearest relative, and that the duration of mourning shall not
exceed a year. A wife's mourning for her husband is the most conventionally deep mourning allowed, and every one who has seen an English widow will agree that she makes a "hearse" of herself. Bombazine and crape, a widow's cap; and a long; thick veil such is the modern English idea. Some widows even have the cap made of black _crepe lisse_, but it is generally of white. In this country a widow's first mourning dresses are covered almost entirely with crape, a most costly and disagreeable material, easily ruined by the dampness and dust a sort of penitential and self-mortifying dress, and very ugly and very expensive. There are now, however, other and more agreeable fabrics which also bear the dead black, lusterless look which is alone considered respectful to the dead, and which are not so costly as crape, or so disagreeable to wear. The Henrietta cloth and imperial serges are chosen for heavy winter dresses, while for those of less weight are tamise cloth, Bayonnaise, grenadine, nuns' veiling, and the American silk.

Our mourning usages are not overloaded with what may be called the pomp, pride, and circumstance of woe which characterize English funerals. Indeed, so overdone are mourning ceremonies in England what with the hired mutes, the nodding plumes, the costly coffin, and the gifts of gloves and bands and rings, etc. that Lady Georgiana Milnor, of Nunappleton, in York, a great friend of the Archbishop, wrote a book against the abuse, ordered her own body to be buried in a pine coffin, and forbade her servants and relatives to wear mourning. Her wishes were carried out to the letter. A black, cloth-covered casket with silver mountings is considered in the best taste, and the pall-bearers are given at most a white scarf and a pair of black gloves. Even this is not always done. At one time the traffic in these returned bands and gloves was quite a fortune to the undertaker. Mourning is very expensive, and often costs a family more than they can well afford; but it is a sacrifice that even the poorest gladly make, and those who can least afford it often wear the best mourning, so tyrannical is custom. They consider it by what process of reasoning no one can understand, unless it be out of a hereditary belief that we hold in the heathen idea of propitiating the manes of the departed an act of disrespect to the memory of the dead if the living are not clad in gloomy black.

However, our business is with the etiquette of mourning. Widows wear deep mourning, consisting of woollen stuffs and crape, for about two years, and sometimes for life, in America. Children wear the same for parents for one year, and then lighten it with black
silk, trimmed with crape. Half-mourning gradations of gray, purple, or lilac have been abandoned, and, instead, combinations of black and white are used. Complimentary mourning is black silk without crape. The French have three grades of mourning deep, ordinary, and half mourning. In deep mourning, woolen cloths only are worn; in ordinary mourning, silk and woolen; in half mourning, gray and violet. An American lady is always shocked at the gayety and cheerfulness of French mourning. In France, etiquette prescribes mourning for a husband for one year and six weeks--that is, six months of deep mourning, six of ordinary, and six weeks of half mourning. For a wife, a father, or a mother, six months--three deep and three half mourning; for a grandparent, two months and a half of slight mourning; for a brother or a sister, two months, one of which is in deep mourning; for an uncle or an aunt, three weeks of ordinary black. In America, with no fixity of rule, ladies have been known to go into deepest mourning for their own relatives or those of their husbands, or for people, perhaps, whom they have never seen, and have remained as gloomy monuments of bereavement for seven or ten years, constantly in black; then, on losing a child or a relative dearly loved, they have no extremity of dress left to express the real grief which fills their lives--no deeper black to go into. This complimentary mourning should be, as in the French custom, limited to two or three weeks. The health of a delicate child has been known to be seriously affected by the constant spectacle of his mother in deep mourning.

The period of a mourner's retirement from the world has been very much shortened of late. For one year no formal visiting is undertaken, nor is there any gayety in the house. Black is often worn for a husband or wife two years, for parents one year, and for brothers and sisters one year; a heavy black is lightened after that period. Ladies are beginning to wear a small black gauze veil over the face, and are in the habit of throwing the heavy crape veil back over the hat. It is also proper to wear a quiet black dress when going to a funeral, although this is not absolutely necessary.

Friends should call on the bereaved family within a month, not expecting, of course, to see them. Kind notes expressing sympathy are most welcome to the afflicted from intimate friends, and gifts of flowers, or any testimonial of sympathy, are thoughtful and appropriate. Cards and note-paper are now put into mourning by those who desire to express conventionally their regret for the dead; but very broad borders of black look like ostentation, and are in undoubted bad taste. No doubt all these things are proper enough in their way, but a narrow border of black tells the story of loss as well as an inch of coal-black gloom. The fashion of wearing handkerchiefs which are made with a two-inch square of white cambric and a four-inch border of black may well be deprecated. A gay young widow at Washington was once seen dancing at a reception, a few months after the death of her soldier husband, with a long black veil on, and holding in her black-gloved hand one of these handkerchiefs, which looked as if it had been dipped in ink. "She should have dipped it in blood," said a by-stander. Under such circumstances we learn how much significance is to be attached to the grief expressed by a mourning veil.

The mourning which soldiers, sailors, and courtiers wear has something pathetic and effective about it. A flag draped with crape, a gray cadet-sleeve with a black band, or a long piece of crape about the left arm of a senator, a black weed on a hat, these always touch us. They would even appear to suggest that the lighter the black, the more fully the feeling of the heart is expressed. If we love our dead, there is no danger that we shall forget them. "The customary suit of solemn black" is not needed when we can wear it in our hearts.

For lighter mourning jet is used on silk, and there is no doubt that it makes a very handsome dress. It is a singular fact that there is a certain comfort to some people in wearing very handsome black. Worth, on being asked to dress an American widow whom he
had never seen, sent for her photograph, for he said that he wished to see "whether she was the sort of woman who would relish a becoming black."

Very elegant dresses are made with jet embroidery on crape the beautiful soft French crape but lace is never "mourning." Even the French, who have very light ideas on the subject, do not trim the most ornamental dresses with lace during the period of even second mourning, except when they put the woolen yak lace on a cloth cloak or mantilla. During a very dressy half mourning, however, black lace may be worn on white silk; but this is questionable. Diamond ornaments set in black enamel are allowed even in the deepest mourning, and also pearls set in black. The initials of the deceased, in black brilliants or pearls, are now set in lockets and sleeve-buttons, or pins. Gold ornaments are never worn in mourning.

White silk, embroidered with black jet, is used in the second stage of court mourning, with black gloves. Deep red is deemed in England a proper alternative for mourning black, if the wearer be called upon to go to a wedding during the period of the first year's mourning. At St. George's, Hanover Square, therefore, one may often see a widow assisting at the wedding of a daughter or a son, and dressed in a superb red brocade or velvet, which, directly the wedding is over, she will discard for her solemn black.

The question of black gloves is one which troubles all who are obliged to wear mourning through the heat of summer. The black kid glove is painfully warm and smutty, disfiguring the hand and soiling the handkerchief and face. The Swedish kid glove is now much more in vogue, and the silk glove is made with such neatness and with such a number of buttons that it is equally stylish, and much cooler and more agreeable.

Mourning bonnets are worn rather larger than ordinary bonnets. In England they are still made of the old-fashioned cottage shape, and are very useful in carrying the heavy veil and in shading the face. The Queen has always worn this style of bonnet. Her widow's cap has never been laid aside, and with her long veil of white falling down her back when she appears at court, it makes the most becoming dress that she has ever worn. For such a grief as hers there is something appropriate and dignified in her adherence to the mourning-dress. It fully expresses her sad isolation: for a queen can have no near friends. The whole English nation has sympathized with her grief, and commended her black dress. Nor can we criticize the grief which causes a mother to wear mourning for her children. If it be 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.

But for the mockery, the conventional absurdities, and the affectations which so readily lend themselves to caricature in the name of mourning, no condemnation can be too strong. There is a ghoul-like ghastliness in talking about "ornamental," or "becoming," or "complimentary" mourning. People of sense, of course, manage to dress without going to extremities in either direction. We see many a pale-faced mourner whose quiet mourning-dress tells the story of bereavement without giving us the painful feeling that crape is too thick, or bombazine too heavy, for comfort. Exaggeration is to be deprecated in mourning as in everything.

The discarding of mourning should be effected by gradations. It shocks persons of good taste to see a light-hearted young widow jump into colors, as if she had been counting the hours. If black is to be dispensed with, let its retirement be slowly and gracefully marked by quiet costumes, as the feeling of grief, yielding to the kindly influence of time, is shaded off into resignation and cheerfulness. We do not forget our dead, but we mourn for them with a feeling which no longer partakes of anguish.

Before a funeral the ladies of a family see no one but the most intimate friends. The gentlemen, of course, must see the clergyman and officials who manage the ceremony. It is now the almost universal practice to carry the remains to a church, where the friends of the family can pay the last tribute of respect without crowding into a private house. Pallbearers are invited by note, and assemble at the house of the deceased, accompanying the remains, after the ceremonies at the church, to their final resting-place. The nearest lady friends seldom go to the church or to the grave. This is, however, entirely a matter of feeling, and they can go if they wish. After the funeral only the members of the family return to the house, and it is not expected that a bereaved wife or mother will see any one other than the members of her family for several weeks.

The preparations for a funeral in the house are committed to the care of an undertaker, who removes the furniture from the drawing-room, filling all the space possible with camp-stools. The clergyman reads the service at the head of the coffin, the relatives being grouped around. The body, if not disfigured by disease, is often dressed in the clothes worn in life, and laid in an open casket, as if reposing on a sofa, and all friends are asked to take a last look. It is, however, a somewhat ghastly proceeding to try to make the dead look like the living. The body of a man is usually dressed in black. A young boy is laid out in his every-day clothes, but surely the young of both sexes look more fitly clad in the white cashmere robe.

The custom of decorating the coffin with flowers is a beautiful one, but has been, in large cities, so overdone, and so purely a matter of money, that now the request is generally made that no flowers be sent.

In England a lady of the court wears, for her parent, crape and bombazine (or its equivalent in any lusterless cloth) for three months. She goes nowhere during that period. After that she wears lusterless silks, trimmed with crape and jet, and goes to court if commanded. She can also go to concerts without violating etiquette, or to family weddings. After six months she again reduces her mourning to black and white, and can attend the "drawing-room" or go to small dinners. For a husband the time is exactly doubled, but in neither case should the widow be seen at a ball, a theatre, or an opera until after one year has elapsed.

In this country no person in mourning for a parent, a child, a brother, or a husband, is expected to be seen at a concert, a dinner, a party, or at any other place of public amusement, before three months have passed, After that one may be seen at a concert. But to go to the opera, or a dinner, or a party, before six months have elapsed, is considered heartless and disrespectful. Indeed, a deep mourning-dress at such a place is an unpleasant anomaly. If one choose, as many do, not to wear mourning, then they can go unchallenged to any place of amusement, for they have asserted their right to be independent; but if they put on mourning they must respect its etiquette, By many who sorrow deeply, and who regard the crape and solemn dress as a mark of respect to the dead, it is deemed almost a sin for a woman to go into the street, to drive, or to walk, for two years, without a deep crape veil over her face. It is a common remark of the censorious that a person who lightens her mourning before that time "did not care much for the deceased;" and many people hold the fact that a widow or an orphan wears her crape for two years to be greatly to her credit.

Of course, no one can say that a woman should not wear mourning all her life if she choose, but it is a serious question whether in so doing she does not injure the welfare and happiness of the living. Children, as we have said, are often strangely affected by this shrouding of their mothers, and men always dislike it.

Common-sense and common decency, however, should restrain the frivolous from engaging much in the amusements and gayeties of life before six months have passed after the death of any near friend. If they pretend to wear black at all, they cannot be too scrupulous in respecting the restraint which it imposes.


Website: The History
Article Name: Etiquette Of Mourning
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood, Harper & Brothers-New York 1887
Time & Date Stamp:  


  Privacy statement | Terms of use