A Brief History of European Mourning

Posted: 26/02/2018

The simplest way of explaining mourning is that it is the expression of grief over someone’s death. The word has long been associated with various customs which certain cultures observe following the death of someone close to them or in their community.

Nowadays in secular society, mourning is perceived as a personal journey in which grief can be expressed in any which way we want. However, in the past, mourning was a formulated process and still is in many religions and cultures. These customs carried out in the past and present can vary widely depending on cultural background and continue to evolve over time, but the main behaviours tend to remain constant. What is true in the current era is that funeral prices are hugely on the rise and in order to freeze this, you should consider taking out a pre-paid funeral plan to save yourself the heartache in the future.

Due to the rise in technology, many people “digitally mourn”. This could be through posting pictures and messages on social media outlets, keeping the deceased’s social medias active or attending a funeral or memorial via Skype or live stream.

In the United Kingdom, today there is no specific dress or behaviour which is obligatory for those in mourning. However, it still remains traditional to wear black to a funeral, but not so much during a period of mourning.

Early History

In continental Europe, the wearing of black has been used as a symbol of a period of mourning for centuries, dating back to the Roman Empire. In the Roman Era, the toga pulla made of dark wool was worn during mourning.

Moving onto the middle ages and the Renaissance, mourning dress began to be worn for general loss, as well as personal loss. For example, a period of mourning was observed following the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots in France, where Queen Elizabeth I and her court have been documented to have been dressed in full mourning to receive the French Ambassador.

In Europe, it has been customary for those who have been most severely affected by the loss of a loved one to express this through their withdrawal from social events, remaining reserved and wearing black for a period of time. Women were expected to wear a distinctive black cap and a veil, whilst keeping their clothing extremely conservative. In places like England and France, this was only for a certain amount of time. But in places such as Russia, Slovakia, Greece and Spain, women who were widowed were to wear black for the rest of their life. This custom still remains in Europe to this day.

White Mourning


Mary, Queen of Scots in White Mourning c. 1559

Amongst the Medieval Queens of Europe, white dress was used to express the deepest level of grief and mourning.

As far back at 1393, the Parisians were to witness to an unusual spectacle of a royal funeral which was strangely carried out in all white (as opposed to black) for Leo V, King of Armenia. This became a royal tradition and survived in Spain until the end of the fifteenth century.

Many years later in 1934, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands re-introduced the idea of White Mourning following the death her husband – this has remained a tradition for the Dutch royal family.

The Georgian and Victorian Era

The Victorian era has long been associated with the concept of mourning due to its customs. By the time the 19th Century came around, British mourning had developed into a complex set of rules and behaviours, especially amongst the upper classes.


A Victorian Advert for Mourning Attire

Women wore heaving, concealing, black clothing with a black veil, a cap or a bonnet. Jewellery played a large part in the ensemble, usually dark in colour made from jet or occasionally the hair of the deceased. The wealthy tended to wear lockets with a lock of hair of the deceased inside. This get-up was colloquially known as the “widows weeds”(waed in Old English meaning garment). Widows were to wear this for up to four years following the death, but many opted to wear it for the rest of their lives – including Queen Victoria of England.


For a sibling, mourning tended to last for 6 months and parents would to wear mourning clothes as long as they wished. A widow was expected to observe mourning for at least 2 years and not enter society for 1 year. Servants were to wear a black armband if there had been a death in the household out of respect.

Men who were in a state of grief were expected to wear a mourning suit, which was made up of black frock coats with a matching pair of trousers and a waistcoat.

Over time, the rules became more relaxed and it became acceptable for both sexes to don black attire for up to a year after the death of a loved one. Before the 20th century, black was reserved for mourning pretty much exclusively, but it later became a colour which was highly fashionable for general wear.

For more information about the funeral plans we offer, contact us at [email protected]