The colour most commonly associated with death across cultures is black. However, there are some notable exceptions where other colours hold this meaning. The symbolic connections between colours and concepts like death are often tied to beliefs, traditions, and perspectives unique to a particular culture or region. Examining the diverse ways colours and death intertwine reveals insights into how different societies make sense of and ritualize one of life’s most universal experiences.
Black as the Primary Colour of Death
In Western cultures and many others, black is overwhelmingly the colour most linked with death. There are several reasons why black has taken on this mournful association:
- Black is the colour of darkness and night, when life is more still and spirits are believed to be active.
- Black clothing has long been worn for funerals and periods of mourning in European and American cultures.
- Black absorbs all light and so represents emptiness, loss, or the unknown after death.
- Black contrasts vibrant life and is connected to decay and rotting.
- Black makes people appear thinner and paler, resembling a cadaver.
Given these symbolic meanings, black is used almost universally to convey death or grieving across Western countries. However, the extent to which black dominates other colour associations varies. In Northern and Southern Europe, black is the paramount colour of mourning and remembrance. At Christian funerals, attendees often wear all black. Gravesites may feature black wreaths or flowers.
White as the Colour of Death
While black is the main colour linked to death in Europe and the Americas, white is the predominant colour associated with death in many Asian cultures. In China, white is the customary colour worn at funerals. White flowers and wreaths are common offerings. Ancestor worship, which honours those who have passed on, also utilizes white.
In India as well, white rather than black is the main mourning colour in Hindu traditions. White signals purity and so is seen as appropriate for rituals regarding death. In Japan, white is similarly the colour of death and remembrance. Kōhaku, an ancient Japanese funeral tradition, required relatives of the deceased to wear white hemp robes.
Across these cultures, the white colour of bones and burial shrouds has forged connections between white and death. White’s connotations of peace and spirituality also contribute to its symbolic purpose in funerary customs.
Purple as a Royal and Spiritual Colour
While not as commonly associated with death as black or white, purple is another colour tied to mourning and remembrance in select cultures. In Thailand, purple is strongly connected to loss and grief. At funerals, mourners may wear purple as a sign of respect. Offerings to deceased loved ones are also wrapped in purple. Purple’s rarity in nature and previous high cost for dyes once gave it prestige, causing this colour’s link with royalty and spirituality. These elite and mystical associations resulted in purple becoming a funeral colour in some Asian cultures.
Beyond Black, White, and Purple
There are other examples of symbolic colours of death that extend beyond black in Western cultures and white and purple in Asian societies:
- In Mexico, red is sometimes connected to mourning and Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) festivities.
- In Egypt, the colour yellow is associated with death and gold is used in funerary masks.
- Ancient Pueblo cultures used grey and blue pigments in death rituals and to decorate burial sites.
- Some cultures prohibit certain colours from being worn during periods of grieving.
This indicates there are unique regional and spiritual colour symbolisms related to death across cultures. But black, white, and purple constitute the most prominent global examples.
Why Do Colours Carry Symbolic Meaning in Mortuary Customs?
The use of colours in rituals and traditions concerning death serves multiple purposes:
- Colour symbolism helps convey beliefs about what happens after and reflect cultural values.
- It aids grieving and remembrance by denoting somber occasions.
- Specific colours worn or avoided at funerals visually signal the mourning status.
- The colours contribute to a collectively understood language around death.
- They help establish a mood and atmosphere appropriate for remembering the deceased.
In essence, colours become part of the social practices that transform the raw emotions surrounding loss into structured cultural customs. The shared colour symbolism provides guidance for times of grief and uncertainty.
Cultural Variations in Colour Symbolism
The diversity in how colours embody ideas related to death underscores cultural relativism. While a colour may evoke certain universal physiological reactions, like red stimulating and blue calming, the symbolic meanings attached to colours are socially constructed. What is learned, familiar, accessible or prohibited in a society shapes colour symbolism.
|Culture||Colour Most Associated with Death||Key Reasons|
|American and European||Black||
This table summarizes some of the cultural variations in symbolic death colours, tied to localized perspectives.
Shifting Colour Symbolism
While certain death-related colour associations have ancient roots, their meanings are not completely static. Subtle shifts can occur over time as cultures evolve. For instance, in parts of Mexico, purple is starting to supplement black as a funeral colour due to American cultural influence. In Japan, white remains dominant for mourning, but black is also being integrated into modern customs. Change in colour symbolism happens gradually, but the meanings colours carry are social constructs that transform as societies change.
Common Cross-Cultural Psychological Associations
Despite cultural relativism, some psychological reactions to colours at funerals likely hold more universal significance:
- Darker, more muted colours tend to lower mood and arousal – fitting for solemn occasions.
- Red and orange hues are avoided as overtly energetic and celebratory.
- Blues and greens rarely embody death, perhaps as life-affirming natural colours.
So while the specific symbolic meanings differ, certain colour reactions at funerals may align cross-culturally due to innate responses.
Personal Colour Preferences
In modern times, there is often flexibility regarding colour use in death commemorations. The deceased or family may request a certain meaningful colour regardless of broad cultural associations. Especially in multicultural contexts, blanket colour prescriptions are eroding. What matters most is honouring the person who died and the preferences of those grieving. If certain colours better capture an individual’s spirit and legacy, cultural conventions can be adapted.
Colour perceptions around death reveal deeply rooted cultural outlooks but are also evolving with society. Predominant associations like black in the West and white in Asia connect to historical customs and spiritual ideas. Yet, maintaining colour traditions is often less crucial than facilitating bereavement. The colours that help memorialize someone’s life are ultimately more significant than rigid codes. What unifies cross-cultural practices is colours’ power to symbolize beliefs while also expressing personal and communal loss.