Funeral Rites Across Different Cultures: The Significance of Color

When viewed from a cross-cultural framework, color has been used almost universally to symbolize grief, loss, and healing.  Colors make us feel-they can spark a variety of emotions ranging from comfort and warmth to frustration and anger.  Color conjures up emotions, which in turn influence our behavior.

In the West, black has been traditionally associated with somberness.   For this reason, donning dark colors is viewed as appropriate for a funeral and mourning period.  The wearing of black clothing has been a long-accepted funeral tradition intended to show respect for the deceased in the Western world.  Black, as a color, signifies signifies tradition, grief and solemnity.

In many cultures, such as Sikhism, white is the color of purity, oneness, or eternal life.  Sikh women, for instance, typically wear white clothes for mourning.  As white is associated with peace, it makes the focus of the funeral not about loss or grief, but celebrating the soul that will join Waheguru, the Supreme Being in the Sikh faith.  Brightly colored attire or clothing with extravagant patterns, however, is considered disrespectful at Sikh funerals.

In Hinduisim as well, white is worn to show that the departed lived a long and fulfilling life.  This is especially true if the deceased was elderly.  In Hindu religious culture, white is the standard color for grieving because it symbolizes purity-that the departed has been freed from the material world.  As the Hindu belief in reincarnation guides the rituals of funeral traditions, white also represents spiritual rebirth.

Among Brazilian Catholics, purple is associated with mourning.  Many devout Brazilian Catholics wear purple, alongside black, while mourning the loss of a loved one.  For Brazilian Catholics, purple represents the suffering and sorrow of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion-it is the color of spirituality.  As the color has a sacred, devotional meaning, it can actually be considered offensive to wear purple if you are not attending a funeral.

In cultures around the world, color, with its ability to affect mood, has become symbolic for mourning.

Woodlawn continues to be a non-sectarian cemetery without a specific religious affiliation.