This is a question that from the earliest days of Christianity has at times agitated the Church. It was specially dominant in the first centuries, when every divergence from Jewish or Pagan rites was almost an act of faith. Now the Jews, after the death of their relatives, wore sackcloth during their time of mourning, which lasted from seven to forty days. They sat on the ground, and ate their food off the earth; they neither dressed themselves, nor made their beds, nor went into the bath, nor saluted any one. This excess of grief rarely lasted long; then a great feast was made for the surviving friends of the dead; or the bread and meat were placed upon his grave for the benefit of the poor. (Tobit iv. 17; Eccles. xxx. 18; and Baruch vi. 27.)
It was natural for the Christian, with the hope set before him, to oppose this despairing sorrow, and we find Saint Jerome praising those who partially abandoned it; while Cyprian declares he was “ordered by Divine revelation to preach that Christians should not lament their brethren delivered from the world, nor wear any mourning habits for them, seeing that they were gone to put on white raiment, nor give occasion for unbelievers by lamenting those as lost whom we affirm to be with God.”
As the Church lapsed from its simplicity into forms and ceremonies, vestments of all kinds, and for every purpose and occasion, gained importance; and the first serious protestation against mourning garments came from the Quakers. To these spiritual men and women it seemed absurd to wear black garments for those whom they believed had put on everlasting white. The majority of the early Methodists held the same opinion, though in a less positive form. It is remarkable, however, that Christians alone assume the woeful, despairing black garments which seem to denote not only the loss of life, but the end of hope. Ancient Egypt wore yellow in memory of departed friends; the Greeks and Romans used white garments for mourning; the Chinese also consecrate white to the services of death, and the Mohammedans wear blue, because it is the color of the visible heavens.
Therefore I ask, if we must wear a distinct dress to typify our sorrow, why black? Black has now become objectionable from having lost all the sacred meaning it once possessed. It is no longer the livery of grief. The blonde belle wears it because it sets off her fine complexion; the brunette, because it admits of the vivid contrasts so suitable to her brilliant beauty. The prudent wear it because it is economical and ladylike; and all women know that it imparts grace and dignity, and drapes beautifully; so, for these and many other reasons, it has within the last fifty years become an every-day dress, one just as likely to express vanity as grief.
The reasons set forth by the Quakers for its abandonment cover the ground, and are at least worthy of our consideration. They are: First, that mourning had its origin in a state of barbarism, and prior to the revelation of “life eternal through Jesus Christ,” and is therefore not to be observed in civilized and Christianized countries. Second, that the trappings of grief are childish where the grief is real, and mockery where it is not. Third, that mourning garments are absolutely useless: for if they are intended to remind us of our affliction, true grief needs no such reminder; if to point out our grief to others, they are an impertinence, for true sorrow courts seclusion; and if as a consolation, they are only powerful to remind of an irrevocable past. Fourth, their inconvenience: too often the house of death is turned by them into a busy work-shop; and the souls bowed down with grief are made to trouble themselves about mourning ornaments and becoming weeds. Fifth, their bad moral influence: the gracefulness of the costume stills the grief that ought to be stilled by religion; and as in a large family there must be many mourners in form only, the equivocation of dress is a sort of moral equivocation. Sixth, their expense. This is really a great item in the resources of the poor, and often straitens for years; besides causing them, in the hour of their desolation, to be so worried and anxious about the robing of the body as to miss all the lessons God intended for the soul.
The advocates for mourning plead the veiling of the heavens in black at the death of Christ; and the universality and continuance of the custom, in all ages, all countries, and all faiths. I am aware that the subject is one in which strangers cannot intermeddle; the question when it arises must be settled by every heart individually. But, at least, if mourning garments are to be worn, let us not defeat every argument in their favor by fashioning them of the richest stuffs, and in the most stylish manner. This is to ticket them as the thinnest of mockeries. And after all, if we approve mourning, and wish our friends to hold us in remembrance after death, can we not find a better way than by crape and bombazine? Yes, crape and bombazine wear out, and must finally be cast off; but the “memorial of virtue is immortal. When it is present, men take example of it, and when it is gone, they desire it: it weareth a crown, and triumpheth forever.”
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