New Worlds: Mourning

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Although the question of what a society does with the bodies of the deceased is a key part of the funerary process, it’s hardly the whole story. After all, mourning is as much or more about the living as the dead, with a variety of customs designed to protect them from the spirits of the departed or help them through their grief.

These customs can kick in right away. Several different traditions say you should cover any mirrors in the house where a person has died, either to avoid catching glimpses of the evil spirits attracted by death, or to prevent the spirit of the deceased from being caught in the image. Similarly, you might open the windows in the room where the person died in order to permit the spirit’s departure. Some societies mandate that a body should be taken out of the house through a window or an opening cut into the wall, to prevent the ghost from finding its way back through the door; this is similar to the idea of carrying the body out feet-first, so it won’t look back and beckon someone else to follow (thus leading to another death). Death is a liminal moment, a crossing of the boundaries between life and the afterlife, so it’s unsurprising that there would be many practices to guard against the associated dangers.

For those left behind, there is the process of mourning itself. Modern American expectations tend toward quiet dignity, with the bereaved keeping their composure as best as possible while someone gives a eulogy, but that’s hardly universal; in other societies mourning is expected to be demonstrative and loud. People tear their clothing, weep freely, wail, keen, and more. Withholding such behaviors would be an insult to the departed — a sign that you don’t really care. In fact, the demonstration of grief might be so important that you hire professional mourners to supplement the display.

Which approach is “better”? I suspect it depends on the society and the individual in question. Maintaining your composure in the face of profound loss can be incredibly difficult . . . but so can forcing yourself into the ostentatious performance of grief, especially if the deceased is someone you personally loathed.

Personal feelings often have no bearing on the formal customs of mourning, though. Many societies mandate who has to mourn (in the sense of performing specific practices) based on the degree and nature of kinship to the departed. In Judaism, for example, the key figures are related within one degree: parents, children, siblings, and spouses. These are the people expected to sit shiva, i.e. observe a fixed seven-day mourning period. By contrast, strict Confucian ideology sometimes forbade anyone to mourn the death of an immature child, because it was considered wrong for people to show such honor and respect to someone beneath them in the hierarchy: it’s supposed to flow from child to parent, not the other way around. Christian communities might forbid mourning suicides, because of their unabsolved sin. Shifting to the far end of the spectrum, the death of a monarch or other major public figure might require entire communities to go into mourning.

Because the formal practice is based on social circumstances rather than emotion, it often persists for a set period of time, as with the aforementioned shiva. Victorian society required much lengthier observance of mourning, at least among the upper classes. Men got off relatively easy, marking their grief with black gloves, hatbands, or armbands, but women had it much harder. Although practice varied through the nineteenth century, widows were expected to be in mourning for something like two years, only lightening to “half-mourning” (with clothes in lavender, grey, or black pinstripe) toward the end.

And that was just for deceased husbands. There were also set mourning periods for parents, children, siblings, aunts and uncles, first cousins, in-laws, and even the in-laws of married children. It’s no wonder that some women opted never to come out of mourning clothes: purchasing all the necessary garments and accessories was a significant financial burden, with no guarantee you wouldn’t have to put them right back on a week after you took them off. (Of course not everyone would have observed all the niceties for the full length of time; whenever you hear about a cultural practice like this, you always have to remember that what is expected and what people actually do can be quite different.)

Some societies have required even more stringent responses to loss, especially for widows. In East Asia they might be expected to shave their heads and begin life as Buddhist nuns after their husbands pass. In some parts of India, widows similarly move to temples and spend the remainder of their lives begging for alms. The practice of sati was even more extreme, with widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres — theoretically of their own free will. But there’s no illusion of free will in the ancient tombs we find around the world, where dead rulers were put to rest surrounded by the bodies of sacrificed wives, slaves, horses, and more.

As with quiet versus ostentatious grieving, formal mourning (of the non-lethal variety) has both its good sides and its bad. People in that state are often not expected to carry out all their usual tasks, which can give them some desperately-needed respite, and a structured transition back to normal life can be a source of comfort and assistance — better than being caught in the limbo of not knowing when it’s socially acceptable to move on. On the other hand, being barred from participating in normal activities, especially the fun ones that might lighten your spirit, can make the experience of loss more crushing, and the formal return to daily routine might come far too late — or far too soon.

Finally, there’s the material culture of death. Tombs, gravestones, and other markers of the final resting place provide a focal point for mourning, as do memorial tablets or ancestral altars in the home. It’s been common for millennia to bury people with grave goods, for reasons ranging from utility in the afterlife, to demonstration of the dead person’s importance, to taboos that prohibit any living person from continuing to use those items. Other things are made for the use of the bereaved: going back to the Victorians and their obsession with mortality, you find commemoration of the deceased taking the shape of locks of hair, portraits of the dead, photographs of same (either resting peacefully or posed as if they were still alive), and more. Death masks might be sculpted images made for the coffin, as you see in Egyptian burials, or wax or plaster casts taken directly from the corpse, kept around after burial.

This really only scratches the surface of mourning customs. In the Chinese TV show Nirvana in Fire (aka Lang ya bang), there’s a plot point built around one of the characters avoiding the direct use of the hanzi from his deceased parents’ names. There are also all the rituals that may come after death — but those often have to do with the afterlife, which will be our topic next week.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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9 Responses to New Worlds: Mourning

  1. Remember the scene in “Gone with the Wind” when Scarlet shocks the entire community by _dancing_ while still in Widow’s Weeds?

    A lot of this excess mourning came from Queen Victoria never getting over the loss of her beloved Prince Albert, even to the point of requiring servants to lay out fresh clothes for him every day so 30 or 40 years after his death.

    • Can you believe I never actually read or saw Gone with the Wind? I read part of it when I was a kid, but didn’t get that far.

      A lot of this excess mourning came from Queen Victoria never getting over the loss of her beloved Prince Albert, even to the point of requiring servants to lay out fresh clothes for him every day so 30 or 40 years after his death.

      That was certainly part of it, but there were other factors as well.

    • Cat Kimbriel says:

      I always figured that a huge part of all of it was, was the widow pregnant with a child that complicated the inheritance?

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Mourning - Swan Tower

  3. There was a great exhibit of Victorian mourning fashions in NYC a few years ago at the Met, which alas! I missed.

  4. Mourning jewelry was a whole industry of itself in Victorian England. Jet pieces tastefully set with a lock of the beloved’s hair… fortunately, hair is romantic, where as parings of fingernails are not (imagine all the literature in which, instead of a lock of her flowing tresses, the young lady gives a little pile of her fingernail bits to the beloved, who kisses them and files them in his breast pocket…).

    I find the whole set of language around death to be fascinating. Talk to a mortician for twenty minutes and you learn all manner of synonyms for death and the dead. Your father or uncle is no longer your father or uncle, he is The Departed, as if he’d just caught a train to Chicago. No one has died, they have passed (“passed away” used to be more common, but the term has been shortened) or done something more religiously figurative–gone to be the the angels, perhaps.

    I found Emily Post to be instructive about the “why” of widow’s weeds, which, according to Miss Post, are intended to signal a widow’s state and that she should not be bothered with the ordinary business of life, but allowed to be alone in a little bubble of grief. Which is fine if you are the sort of person who needs to process grief alone, in quiet. If you are not that sort of person it sounds isolating to the point of cruelty.

    • I almost mentioned mourning jewelry, but this post had already run long. 🙂

      Yeah, the euphemisms are definitely a thing. In this post and the one on funerary customs, I found myself avoiding the words “corpse” and “cadaver,” in favor of “the remains” or something else a bit more genteel.

      I found Emily Post to be instructive about the “why” of widow’s weeds, which, according to Miss Post, are intended to signal a widow’s state and that she should not be bothered with the ordinary business of life, but allowed to be alone in a little bubble of grief. Which is fine if you are the sort of person who needs to process grief alone, in quiet. If you are not that sort of person it sounds isolating to the point of cruelty.

      Yes, exactly. Whereas the converse is also true: if you’re someone who benefits from going on with your daily life, being permitted to do so is a relief, but if you’re the type who needs some time away from that, being forced to go on working or whatever right away is the cruelty.

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