Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wearing White

It may seem strange to hear me say that my Beloved Dead has been heavily on my mind this winter, but my city has been blanketed in white for longer than I remember since I moved here. For me, white is the color I associate with ancestors. When I gaze out at the crystalline snow, I see the sun shining dancing upon those who are no longer here.
My introduction to Ancestor Work was through Ifa, a religion practiced by the Yorubans. They wear white when petitioning the ancestors or dealing with death because to them white is purity; it is the absence of color. When I started doing my own work, I liked that idea of approaching such an emotional space from a place of hope and light and clarity, as opposed to the only visual I had of death, of somber people in black dress.
It is true that when crossing the threshold to whatever other world you wander through, your newness and uniqueness in that world becomes a kind of neon sign, a flashing look-at-me to beings both light and dark. Specifically with spirit world, you attract all manner of energies, good and bad, light and dark. I have found it extremely helpful to approach the work from a place of light, acting as a beacon of light against the darkness that would seek me out. I usually imagine myself as Gandalf’s staff, shining with a light and love so brilliant and warm it hurts that which would hurt me.

2010, photo by Rahdne Zola.
That’s what works for me. Different cultures have different customs and there are many others that wear white around death and grieving. It’s a traditional color in Ethiopia and India. Hindus wear casual, white clothes for funerals and their widows usually wear white for the rest of their lives. Buddhists also prefer white over black to show their grief.
In China, white is the predominant color for funerals. As a sign of happiness, red is an inappropriate color to wear. The grieving family will wear a piece of colored cloth on their arm for 100 days. Children of the deceased wear a black cloth, grandchildren wear blue, and great-grandchildren wear green.
White or black can be worn in the Philippines, heavily influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and Catholic beliefs. Here, as well, red is a taboo color. It is believed that anyone wearing it during a time of mourning will suffer from illness and/or die.
            Black is traditional custom for funerals in Thailand, as well as Japan, whether Japanese kimonos or formal, black Western-style clothing. With Western clothes, a single strand of white pearls is also permitted. In areas of the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, and Spain, it is common for widows to wear black for the rest of their lives. Black is still considered proper funeral etiquette in the U.S. but no one is expected to wear it for extended periods of time.
In much of the non-Western world, white is the predominant color associated with death, grief, and mourning. But the history of the Western world weaving between the two colors is intriguing:
  • Wearing black for mourning dates back, at least, to the Roman Empire. The toga pulla was made of dark-colored wool.
  • Black wasn’t just for mourning. It was also a sign of sadness across Medieval Europe, where it was common for conquered people to greet their new lord dressed in black.
  • In contrast, Medieval European queens mourned in white.
  • In 1393, Leo V, King of France died in exile in Paris. His funeral was dressed in white, not black, to the curiosity of the locals. It became custom for Queens of France to wear deuil blanc, or “white mourning.” In 1938, Queen Elizabeth made a State visit to France while in mourning for her mother. She had a custom White Wardrobe created for the trip by Norman Hartnell.
  • Royal funerals were dressed in white in Spain until 1498. Queen Fabiola, of Spain, revived the tradition at the death of her husband, King Baudouin I, of Belgium in 1993.
  • 1536, King Henry VIII wore white after the death of Anne Boleyn.
  • There is a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots in a white veil from 1599, in deep mourning after the deaths of her father-in-law, then her mother, and then her husband, Francis II of France.
  • White cloth was cheap, undyed fabric, appropriate to mourning as it was supposed to symbolize a neglect of caring for the material world.
  • In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert and she wore a white wedding gown to reflect the economic crisis in Britain. After this occasion, white was not used for mourning again in Europe. (Until the 1930s, wedding dresses were simply fancier versions of contemporary fashion.)
  • Victorian mourning customs are strange and complicated… and earned their own blog post. Come back next week for more!

I know that when I die, I don’t want people to wear black. White would be beautiful to me, but I might not be there to see it, so… Maybe blue. Blue is a healing color. Or maybe green, because the Earth is green and alive and because of Her I was alive for a while, too. Or maybe it doesn’t matter what color people wear. Maybe all that matters is that I loved them and they loved me. 

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