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What is Mourning?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Mourning is the state of grief which many people enter into after the death of a loved one. The term is also used to describe unique cultural rituals for dealing with such grief. Many cultures around the world have very distinctive mourning practices which are intended to help people process the role of death in their lives. Certain religions also have rigid mourning traditions.

Humans have been mourning each other for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that even early hominids grieved when members of a family or community died, performing burials and various rituals which were designed to help the community cope with the death. Early humans buried each other with tools they thought might be useful, along with flowers, textiles, and other objects, some of which have been remarkably well preserved.

As a general rule, it is assumed that someone in mourning is in a state of extreme sorrow, even when the death is expected or even welcomed. Many cultures have specific rules for dealing with people who are grieving; these rules are often designed to be forgiving of social transgressions by those in mourning, and to create a community attitude which is respectful and supportive of those in mourning. Often, someone in mourning identifies him or herself by wearing somber colors or ritually cutting hair or clothing.

Many anthropologists are very interested in the ways that various cultures mourn their dead, because mourning traditions can provide interesting information about social norms and religious beliefs. Numerous studies have been published about mourning traditions around the world and throughout history, from the pomp and ceremony of Victorian mourning to the elaborate rituals which surround death in traditional Japanese families.

If someone belongs to a religious, social, or cultural group which has strict rules about mourning, these rules can encompass a variety of topics, from foods that people are allowed to eat to whether or not mourners can wear jewelry. These rules generally vary, depending on how close one is to the deceased and how long it has been since the death. If you know that you will be visiting someone who is in mourning, you may want to research his or her cultural traditions so that you can be as respectful as possible.

In societies without rigid rules about mourning and mourners, people who are in mourning are still treated carefully and with respect. Many people like to send cards or flowers to mourners to express sorrow for their loss, and people are often encouraged to be circumspect about conversational topics around mourners, so as not to refresh their sorrow.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Mar 26, 2011

@turkay1-- Religion was one of my majors in college and although I don't think there are any religions who rejoice death, religions which believe in reincarnation like Buddhism and Hinduism have a different outlook on death than Western religion and traditions.

Buddhism for example, thinks of death as the next stage, just as you mentioned. They believe that death is the step before reincarnation and rebirth, so they are not as fearful or worried about death as we are, I think. Buddhists also aim to attain a level of consciousness and awareness about everything, including death. So they want to see the reality behind death instead of viewing it as an end to material life.

But despite all this, Buddhists and Hindus still have formal ceremonies and funeral rites for those who have passed away. There is still a mourning period after their loved ones.

I think that one of the answers to your questions is that mourning is a very natural phenomenon for humans. In fact, even animals mourn after a member of their group dies. I think it's nice to come to terms with death and to not be fearful of it. But there is no way that we can get through this stage without mourning.

By candyquilt — On Mar 24, 2011

This is going to sound a little philosophical but, I wonder if there has ever been a culture or group of people who rejoiced at death rather than mourned for it? Why can't we think of death as the beginning of a new stage and not the end of life altogether?

I realize that this is not really possible. Just the thought that we are never going to see someone again is a sad thing. I think we also mourn after death because we don't know what happens afterward. We don't know where the spirit goes and what it is faced with.

Or maybe mourning has to do with the people who are left behind rather than the one who has passed away. The deceased's family, friends and colleagues are all deprived of being around and interacting with that person indefinitely. I wonder if we are mourning more for this deprivation rather than death itself?

I hope that this is not the case, because that almost sounds like selfishness. I would prefer to think of mourning as something like recognition, of that person's life, their achievements, experiences and the joy and happiness that their presence has added to others' lives.

This leads me to ask yet another question, do you think that mourning requires a level of maturity or consciousness?

I'd love to hear about what other people think about mourning and why we react this way to death.

By discographer — On Mar 23, 2011

I wish that we didn't have rigid beliefs about how a mourner is supposed to behave. I think that everyone has a different way of dealing with things. Some people can face the reality that a loved one is no longer alive easily and quickly. But for some people, it's a more difficult process to really accept it and mourn properly.

I've even heard doctors say that it is not normal for someone to not be able to cry and mourn after a loved one. But I don't agree with this. I mean we are not mechanical individuals who can cry when we are expected to. We are human, and we are going to have our differences. So I believe that mourners should be given their space so that they can deal with it however they will. I think that it's not fair for cultural traditions to demand that it be done in a specific way.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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