I have buried my husband. We celebrated formally, as he requested. We euologized him, for the incredible loving man he was: the husband, the father, the friend. As mourners, we accompanied him to the York cemetery and a lone bagpiper played as the sun shone down on us. As mourners, we broke bread together. As mourners we drank together. As mourners we remembered him, and laughed and cried. Funeral and mourning rituals matter to me in a way I never understood before.
Now, as a widow in mourning, I have returned home alone. After being with family constantly since he died eighteen days ago, I have come home alone to our house. I have eaten my first meal alone. I have slept in our bed alone. There are black wreaths on our front doors, and in some ways I wish I could wear black all the time. But what would it mean today?
Victorian grief cultures of mourning were structured and intense with black symbolic of spiritual darkness. Now black is just a stylish color.
Widows wore their black “widow’s weeds” for life in some parts of Europe. I remember living in the Italian neighborhood of Silver Lake while I went to White Plains High School. I would see the grandmothers walking with their black skirts, black blouses, and black scarves covering their heads. I knew they were widows.
I remember reading Victorian novels where the widow would remove herself from public or social activities, and would graduate from heavy black to gray then lavender clothing as her loss receded and she moved into half mourning. People knew.
I took the dog for a walk at sunset yesterday, purposely avoiding the park where people gather. But one of the neighbors that I know only slightly pulled his car over and said hello. He asked “what’s new?” I just shrugged. If I had said anything, I would have started to cry. If we had a culture of mourning and I were wearing black he wouldn’t have stopped. He wouldn’t have asked. He would have known.
In the past there were mourning rituals which acknowledged that death impacted family members differently according to their relationships. Mourning customs for a widow were from four years to at least a year and a day, parents or children of the deceased were encouraged to spend six months, and grandparents and siblings were to spend three months in morning. Other family members should spend thirty days in mourning.
The hairdresser doing my hair several days before the funeral told me she knew what I was going through because her grandmother had just died. I nodded and said appropriate things but I wanted to yell “that’s not the same at all!!!”
Our culture today encourages us to “get on with life.” “Go back to work.” “Keep busy.” We, the mourners, are not expected to acknowledge our loss in a public way once the funeral is over. In fact, if we do, it can make some people uncomfortable. We don’t even allow ourselves to appreciate the significance of the loss, perhaps because it’s so incomprehensible. But also because we don’t have the ongoing ritual of mourning.
I’m not wearing black today, but my heart, my body, my soul – they are in spiritual darkness. The black wreaths on my door are my public acknowledgement that funeral and mourning rituals matter.