The color most commonly associated with death in many cultures around the world is black. However, there are some cultures that use different colors to represent death and mourning. The specific color can carry various meanings and symbolism related to death. In this article, we will explore what colors different cultures use to represent death and examine the cultural significance behind these color choices.
In Western cultures, the color black is most strongly associated with death and mourning. Black clothing is traditionally worn at funerals and memorial services. This tradition dates back to the Victorian era in Britain, when the period of mourning following a death was strictly observed. Wearing black was a sign of respect for the deceased, and also communicated to others that the wearer was in mourning. The custom spread to other Western countries and continues to be practiced today.
Black absorbs and does not reflect light, representing darkness. For this reason, it is linked to death and the unknown afterlife. It signifies the loss of light, or life, that the deceased provided. The somberness of black clothing conveys the grief felt at the passing of a loved one.
In many Asian cultures, white is the color of death and mourning. In China, white or off-white robes are traditionally worn at funerals. White flowers, like lilies, chrysanthemums and orchids are also common at Chinese funerals. The color white represents purity and release from the cycles of birth and death. It is intended to guide the deceased into the afterlife and symbolizes the beginning of a new spiritual path.
In India, widows often wear white clothing to indicate their spouse has died. While white represents mourning, it is also considered the color of immortality, for the spirit is believed to live on beyond the body’s death.
Purple is a less common color associated with death in some cultures. In Thailand, purple is worn by widows during a mourning period after their husband’s death. Purple is meant to represent the qualities of wisdom, dignity and devotion. Wearing purple signals to others that the widow is grieving but continuing forward with spiritual strength and noble character.
The Catholic Church uses purple vestments and altar cloths during funerals and the seasons of Advent and Lent. As a somber color, purple symbolizes penance and sacrifice. It also represents royalty, associating the deceased with resurrection and eternal life like Christ.
While red is linked with danger, violence or anger in many Western cultures, it has the opposite association in South Africa. For the Xhosa people, red is the color of mourning. Red clothing or ribbons are worn by the bereaved, and the deceased are wrapped in red blankets. Red’s vivid hue represents the blood of life. The Xhosa believe red attracts the spirits and draws them to the funeral to guide the departed into the afterlife. Wearing red honors the dead and conveys ongoing attachment to the soul of the deceased.
In Iran, blue is the color of mourning. Instead of black, blue clothing is worn to funerals and memorial services. Blue offers a more uplifting tone than black in Iranian culture. The connection between blue and grieving comes from a historic and religious meaning in Shia Islam. Blue represented heaven and spirituality, while black was linked to oppression. Choosing blue allows Iranians to grieve in spiritual hope.
For some Buddhists, yellow is the color of death. In Tibetan Buddhism, yellow symbolized renunciation of the body and earthly life. Monks’ robes are yellow to represent embracing the teachings of Buddha and releasing all physical and material desires. Yellow flowers are placed near coffins during Tibetan Buddhist funeral ceremonies as a reminder of impermanence. They believe death leads to future rebirth and enlightenment.
In Japan, the color of funerals and mourning is not black but gray. White is considered too festive, so gray strikes a balance between celebratory and somber. Gray kimonos are commonly worn by relatives during funeral services and cremations. After the death of Emperor Showa in 1989, the entire country dressed in gray and silver on the national day of mourning. The grayscale palette reflects the solemn mood while honoring the deceased.
Traditional Colors By Religion
The color associated with mourning in a given religion often connects back to spiritual beliefs about the afterlife. Black and white tend to be prominent across faith traditions. Black represents darkness and the unknown beyond death, while white symbolizes the purity of the soul’s release from the body. Some religions integrate colors like purple and yellow that align with their teachings on the meaning of death.
Colors of Mourning By Culture
|South African Xhosa||Red|
Cultural traditions and beliefs shape the significance of colors used to represent death. White is common in Asian cultures where it denotes spirituality and the release of the soul. Purple, red, yellow, blue and gray hold unique meanings in their respective cultures tied to dignity, life, enlightenment, grief and solemnity. Black endures as the predominant mourning color in the Western world.
Symbolic Meaning of Colors Associated With Death
|Black||Darkness, unknown, loss, grief|
|White||Purity, release of soul, spirituality|
|Purple||Wisdom, dignity, devotion|
|Red||Blood of life, spiritual guidance|
|Blue||Heaven, spirituality, grief|
|Yellow||Renunciation, impermanence, enlightenment|
|Gray||Solemnity, balance between festive and grief|
The symbolic associations of colors with death reflect cultural and spiritual perspectives. Black and white have contrasting meanings, while purple, red, yellow, blue and gray add nuanced representations of the values and beliefs systems of each culture. The color of mourning reveals deeply ingrained ideas about life, death, and what exists beyond.
While black is considered the ubiquitous color of death in the West, other cultures use varying colors like white, purple, red, yellow, blue and gray to represent mourning. The specific color holds symbolic significance based on cultural and religious views of the afterlife, spirituality, and how to honor the deceased. Funerary traditions can reveal much about a society’s fundamental values and metaphysical orientation toward the meaning of life and death. The use of color provides visual expression of these complex perspectives. Regardless of the culture, the color of mourning speaks to our shared human experiences of grief, hope, remembrance and belief in realms beyond our earthly existence.