Mourning in the early 1900s

I have, of late, been pondering the rituals of mourning.  We recently watched Downton Abbey (which is wonderful) which has a scene where family members are discussing how long they will have to wear black.  With the prevalance of the Little Black Dress today I don’t think that “taking the black” would have the same degree of significance that it once did, but it seems to me that it serves a useful function.

It gives an outward definition to the grief.  At the same time, the ritual of going to half-mourning and then resuming color gives one permission, or a dorway, to begin life on the other side of grief.  This seems useful.

The rituals are useful to the larger community as well. Though I think the practice is slipping away, largely because of the lack of pedestrians, in many places people will still stop and remove their hats when a funeral procession drives past. Ostensibly, it is a sign of respect, but I think the more important aspect is that it is a marker that in mourning, we can all have empathy for another.

One of the details in Downton Abbey that I particularly appreciated was not highlighted or remarked upon in the scene.  A character opens a letter which was bordered with black.  We only saw the back of the page, so the black border flashed for just an instant.  But it came from a family in mourning and it pleases me that the properties person paid such attention to the small details of the period.

Other cultures have vastly different mourning rituals.  The colors of grief change depending on where you are in the world.  But there have always been rituals to mark the passing of someone.

It seems to me that one of the ways in which one can make a world rich when writing is to create these layers of mourning rituals.  Not just in the rituals themselves, but in how the individual characters react to grief. Do they embrace the rituals of their society or do they spurn them?  Are there generational differences?  Just as mourning rituals differ, individuals react differently to grief.

Edited to add: By the way, if you are interested in the early 1900s, may I recommend Correct Social Usage volume 1 and volume 2.  It was written in 1906 and is very thorough and useful, although I should point out that it is an American etiquette book and so manners differ somewhat from those in Downton Abbey.

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6 Responses

  1. Jenny Williams

    Good points all around. I just read The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, and in that world, white was worn for mourning. I can see how that could be a comfort as well.

    I loved Downton Abbey. But I’m really anxious to see how a couple of the storylines progress.

  2. momk

    I missed the latest episode of Downton Abbey on Sunday evening. Drat~
    Yes indeed…the rituals and customs of mourning are very significant. They
    do vary around the world, but all are designed to comfort the bereaved.
    It is a human and noble instinct. Have not archaelogists found faded flowers
    in the graves of prehistoric peoples?

  3. DrFuzz

    My wife and I enjoyed Downton Abbey so much we ordered the DVD set after the 1st episode. Trust me, for $16.99 at *mazon it was well worth it – you would be surprised how much was trimmed from the TV version.

    Thanks for the note about the black-trimmed border. We can’t wait – but have to until next year – for the next season. We’ll see what The Great War brings.

    1. Jenny Williams

      I wonder if the DVDs or streaming from Netflix will be the full version. I’m guessing so, so I’ll try those. I did feel like quite a bit was being left out of the televised version, that they were jumping through time too much, so it’s good to know there is more for me to see!