05 February 2008

The Love Cycle:
Catholic Mourning

By Carrie Lofty

All good things come to an end. Even the most passionate lovers will eventually be parted by death, and thus mourning customs can be included as part of The Love Cycle. How did people mourn the person they loved most in the world? Readers familiar with novels set in 19th century England may be acquainted with the elaborate Victorian customs for mourning, but customs in Catholic countries on the Continent are less familiar.

Mary Queen of Scots in white mourningDuring medieval times, "white mourning" or deuil blanc, was practiced by those in the deepest throes of grief, generally after having suffered the loss of several close family members or following the murder of a spouse. Pictured is Mary, Queen of Scots in white mourning, c. 1559, following the deaths of her father-in-law, mother, and husband.

When mourning a murdered spouse in German and Austrian principalities, women wore white adornments. White lace and silver jewelry against black mourning garb provided a stark visual contrast and spoke of the severe shock of the crime. Wives of murdered husbands could also expect to mourn far longer than women whose husbands died by natural causes.

Middle- to upper-class Catholic women were expected to be bedridden with grief and were cared for by members of their congregation. Their servants would have put away excessively bright and colorful household items and draped the bedchamber in black. Women would rub ashes in their hair and sit with the corpse, if it was not too badly disfigured, but few women attended graveside services. The ceremonies were thought likely to cause an excess of hysterics. These staunch Germanic customs foreshadowed the behavior Victoria would adopt upon the death of her husband, Albert, as they both hailed from German states.

The key difference between established customs in Victorian Britain and those in Catholic countries was the role of the clergy. Society--from the Queen on down--dictated the stages of British mourning, but priests held the final say among their parishioners. A year of mourning was standard, but in the case of a murder, the priest might prescribe additional months. He might also determine that a woman's health and safety required her to marry before the end of her mourning, and he would authorize a quiet marriage. A sizeable charitable donation to the Church could also grease the wheels. An official, public marriage ceremony would then be conducted at the end of the mourning year. This allowed the Catholic communities more leeway in caring for its citizens, circumventing custom for the sake of practicality.

I know many of you study other cultures--Africa, ancient Rome, 20th century USA, etc. What unusual mourning customs can you share?