Culture and Trends ›

Lovers’ Mourning Customs in History

Shutterstock / sootra

Lovers’ Mourning Customs in History

All deaths are difficult, but the loss of a romantic partner is one of the toughest. Some couples die within hours, days or weeks of each other — a phenomenon researchers say is very real. (Read A Love So Strong for more details.) But there are even more survivors who must figure out how to move forward.

Gail Rubin, a certified thanatologist who facilitates conversations on end-of-life topics, knows firsthand how difficult that can be. She recalled how shocked her mother-in-law was after her husband died. "When you lose somebody you've been with for almost 60 years, that's a major life change that takes time to acclimate to," she said.

Mourning the loss of a partner is unique. Ahead of Valentine’s Day — a time when our thoughts turn to love —we’ve compiled a short list of mourning customs practiced by lovers throughout history. We also asked Rubin for advice on honoring a deceased partner in modern times.

The Funeral Pyre

The tradition in some Indian states of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands began more than 2,000 years ago. Some of the women went willingly. Others did not. The practice began to wane in the mid-1800s and has become extremely rare since. Still, it does occur.

Also note: India is the home of the Taj Mahal, a monument to love inspired by the death of an emperor's wife in childbirth. The white marble mausoleum in Agra, built in the 1600s, holds the bodies of the emperor and his wife.

Sacrificing the Self

Historic Native American mourning customs varied greatly from tribe to tribe, but there were some commonalities. Many widows, for instance, would cut their hair after the deaths of their husbands. Some widows, family and friends of the deceased would also cut themselves, sometimes even removing parts of their fingers. A few tribes, including the Nez Perce of the Northwest, would kill the widow, servants and favorite horse of the dead man.

Mourning Through Fashion

In the Victorian era, an American woman was expected to follow standard public mourning periods: a year for a child, six months for siblings and at least 2 1/2 years for a husband. Her style of dress would change over that period: She was first to appear in "heavy mourning" garb, wearing black clothing, including a black veil, in public. Secondary mourning came next, the only difference being a bit of color or lace on her clothing. The final stage, half-mourning, allowed for solid-colored fabrics in some purples and gray. Of course, not all widows followed these guidelines: After Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart died in battle in 1864, his wife wore black until her own death 59 years later.

A man, meanwhile, was expected to mourn his wife for three months, symbolizing his grief with a black arm band or a rosette of black fabric on his hat or clothing.

A Period of Waiting

In Judaism, the custom has long been to wait up to a year between holding the funeral and unveiling a grave marker. “It's a way of marking the transition from being in a committed relationship to going a full year, through the seasons and the celebrations, without that person physically present,” Rubin said. “It's a way to recognize the changes in one's life and begin to accept them.”

Creating New Traditions

Today, some find solace by honoring deceased partners in completely unique ways. When Rubin’s brother's partner died in 2007, those who loved him gathered for a high tea, with everyone contributing cookies. (His ashes were in a prominently placed urn, "so he was present," she said.) Later, mourners wrote messages and prayers to the deceased and sent them into the air on white balloons.

Rubin is also a believer in funeral keepsakes. When a woman who loved gardening died, her husband and children held her memorial service and gave away flower seeds. For a woman who loved her daily alcoholic beverage at 5 p.m., Rubin had napkins printed with the woman's birth and death dates and the image of a cocktail glass. Some families invite mourners to sort through the lost loved one's possessions and take items that mean something to them.

"It's a way of giving a keepsake," Rubin said, "and helping the family clean house."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."