Traditions of Mourning in Various Cultures

The practice of mourning our loved ones is a tradition that occurs in every culture and is rich in diversity. The mourning period and method are usually determined by the culture and religion that we are raised in, and although many traditions are similar, there are many unique practices that occur in different areas of the world. As the global community interacts more and more frequently, it is important to be aware of the traditions our neighbors follow.

In the United States, Canada, and many European countries, followers of most Christian religions will hold a wake or visitation in a church or funeral home followed by a religious service and burial a few days later. Dark colors are often worn to symbolize the sadness of the occasion. The family of the deceased will often invite the mourners to a meal at their home or at a restaurant.

Several Western countries have slightly different variations of the tradition of visitation and burial, and many regions have their own unique customs to mourn the loss of a loved one:

  • Italy – Italians make a special cookie called Ossa de Mortu (bones of the dead).
  • Greece – The burial takes place within 24 hours and the body is displayed at home in the coffin and the lid is placed outside the door. Visitors often bring a small bunch of flowers and place them on the open coffin and kiss the head of the deceased. Mothers and widows will wear all black for 40 days. Close male relatives do not shave for 40 days.
  • Portugal – Church bells will announce the passing of a resident. The home is open to visitors as the family mourns. Black is worn for the length of the mourning period and widows will wear black the rest of their lives.
  • Germany – Germans consider the deceased as a guest of honor in church. This is a very solemn ceremony in which the final honor to the deceased is paid, followed by a brief burial.
  • Russia – The family is required to invite many guests to their home to say farewell to the deceased, and often the family will say a blessing.
  • Spain – The deceased is buried within 24 hours if possible and only delayed if close relatives are coming from far away.

In most Asian cultures, white is traditionally worn to signify mourning. Unlike most Western countries, dark colors are usually not acceptable for mourning in many Eastern regions. Although several traditions are similar in many of the Asian countries, most are unique to a particular country or religious affiliation:

  • Japan – Some Japanese follow the Buddhist tradition of bestowing a new name for the deceased. In modern times the mourning is done at a wake and most Japanese are cremated, not buried.
  • China – The family of the deceased will not wear any jewelry. They will refrain from wearing anything with red, as red is considered a sign of happiness. The family is situated around the coffin during the wake in accordance to their position in the family. Children of the deceased and daughter-in-laws will wear black while grandchildren will wear blue. The son-in-laws will wear white. After the funeral the immediate family will grieve for 100 days. Guests of the funeral are given a white envelope with a coin and a piece of candy as a gift from the deceased.
  • Tibet – The ground is often not suitable for burial, so the “sky burial” is often practiced in which the body is fed to the vultures. Many rituals and prayers are read or performed. These usually will continue for 49 days to prepare the right karma for the next rebirth.
  • Korea – Viewing and visitation are usually conducted before the burial. On the evening before the service, many songs are sung by family and friends. Ribbons containing messages to the deceased are often placed on plants or bouquets surrounding the deceased.
  • India – The funeral customs of India are strictly in line with the religion of the deceased. Hindus and Buddhists are often cremated, but Muslims are never cremated. The one common thread is that the eldest son is the person in charge of the funeral and never a daughter or wife.
  • Philippines – The body of the deceased is on display for nine days (usually at the family’s home), and there is no sweeping done during this time. Relatives should not bath or comb their hair in the vicinity of the deceased. Often, a black mourning pin is worn and then placed on the coffin before the burial.

In Africa there are many different countries, religions, and tribes, all with varying customs. The most prevalent practice involves the providing of food to the mourners. The family will often take off many days in order to prepare food for everyone who comes to mourn. The female relatives become very frenzied in their lamentations and are often accompanied by flutes or drums. The males may join in with singing and dancing to honor the deceased. In many sections of Africa, mourning lasts for a week.

Although the method of mourning differs from continent to country to religion, there is one overriding theme that is universal – honor and respect for the deceased is prevalent in all who mourn the loss of their loved ones.