South Africa is a multicultural country filled with a mix of fascinating cultures and religions where we can freely experience each other’s different lifestyles and practices. In doing so, we will inevitably attend a funeral of another culture at some stage. This can put us out of our comfort zone and leave us with a dilemma about what to wear to a funeral where we are not familiar with the customs.

Appropriate Funeral Attire

The guidelines for what is and what is not appropriate apparel for events such as viewings and funerals have been greatly relaxed over the last few decades. Men are no longer required to wear ties or suit jackets, women can wear pants, and no one is required to wear black anymore. However, one should try to exercise common sense and good taste. For instance, bathing suits and flip-flops are probably best suited for the beach or pool and not for a viewing or a funeral. It will also be regarded as disrespectful to the family and the deceased if you arrive at the funeral dressed in a revealing outfit.

While it is true that the standards for appropriate funeral attire have been relaxed in recent years and unless forbidden for religious reasons, women nowadays wear slacks and a blouse instead of the traditional skirt or dress. Men no longer are required to wear a tie and jacket. Apparel should be modest, in muted tones or dark colours, and should be clean and without holes. Flip-flops should be avoided because not only are they too casual, but the noise that they make when one walks might be disturbing or offensive to other mourners.

Funeral Colours

The wearing of dark colours to a funeral, mainly black, has been associated with death in Western cultures since the Victorian era when Queen Victoria wore black for 40 years to mourn the passing of her husband, Prince Albert. The wearing of black “widow’s weeds”, which included a black hat and veil in public for up to two years after a husband’s death, became standard practice for women. Men, however, were only expected to mourn their wives for up to 6 months while wearing a black suit and were then able to continue wearing regular suits, usually of dark colours.

In other countries such as Cambodia, France and even the Aborigines from Australia, white mourning clothes represent purity and rebirth. The Aborigines wear a white mourning cap made of clay throughout the grieving period. This cap is laid on the husband’s grave after that. Even Queen Victoria requested that white play an integral part in her funeral. She wore a white veil over her face, and her coffin was also draped in white and drawn by a white horse.

In China, red symbolises happiness and is strictly forbidden at funerals, yet in South Africa, red has been adopted as a colour of mourning and suffering. When national hero, Senzo Meyiwa, passed away, his mourners packed the stadium dressed in red to pay their respects to him.

Purple is another colour used to define sorrow and loss, and in Brazil, many Catholics combine black and purple while in mourning. The colour purple is so sacred in the country that it can be disrespectful to wear it if not attending a funeral. In the East, in Thailand, purple is reserved for widows in mourning for their spouse, while other mourners must dress in black.

Gold was associated with the afterlife in Egypt as it is imperishable and indestructible. It, therefore, quickly became the royal colour of mourning – which is indicated by the discovery of treasures and artefacts in ancient Egyptian burial chambers. The golden funeral mask of King Tutankhamun is a well-recognised example of this.

Grey is another colour used for mourning, particularly in Papua New Guinea, where women apply grey-coloured clay to their skin after their husband has passed away. Some also wear several strings of grey grass and remove one each day as the end of their mourning period draws closer.

In many instances, the person who has passed may have expressed a wish for mourners to wear light, bright colours or a ribbon of a specific colour in aid of a cause or a charity. These details will usually be communicated by either the family or the funeral director.

We also need to know what to expect when attending a funeral of someone from a different faith or culture.

Christian Funerals

Christian funerals either involve a burial or a cremation. Some families may have an open casket, where the body is displayed before burial or cremation so that friends and family can say their last goodbyes. However, we do not have to view the open casket if we do not wish to. A priest or pastor usually leads the funeral service where hymns are sung and prayers said. If you are unsure of where to sit or stand, watch what others do. It is advisable not to talk during the ceremony as it is considered disrespectful. Although it was customary to wear black or dark colours, these are lately combined with other lighter colours, depending on the denomination or even cause of death.

African Funerals

South Africa has 11 recognised cultures, and when it comes to traditional African funerals, the practices are beautiful, unmistakable, and intricate. African funerals are characterised by a desire to celebrate the life of the deceased through song. Some of the mourning processes may involve a ritual sacrifice or a cow, ox or goat. The meat is fed to the mourners, and this process is then repeated on the anniversary of the death to ensure that the deceased may be called upon as a guiding ancestor.

Rituals are very important for African people as they believe that the essence of the deceased is not destroyed but moves on to live in the ancestors’ realm. They believe that the ancestors protect and guide the living and should be respected. Bereavement rituals also provide the people with an occasion to express their profound grief through crying and lamentations.

Attire for African funerals is very formal, with many people opting to buy new clothes and shoes or wearing their Sunday church outfits. Women tend to prefer all black, possibly with a dash of white or red, while men wear black or navy suits. The wearing of either a black, blue or white shirt with a suit is acceptable.

Muslim Funerals

Muslim funerals require that the deceased is buried within 24 hours. Cremations are forbidden. The body is carefully wrapped in a plain white cloth, with which it is buried, and the body is never displayed for mourners. An Imam will lead the funeral service, and there will be prayers and readings from the Quran. Woman are expected to dress modestly and to cover their heads. Everyone who enters the mosque should remove their shoes. Traditionally, only men attend the burial where the body is placed in a grave and covered with a layer of stones and then soil.

Hindu Funerals

Hindu funerals also take place as quickly as possible after death, preferably before the next dusk or dawn. Again, the body is wrapped in a shroud, placed in an open casket with a garland of flowers and holy basil. Traditional offerings of rice balls called “pinda” may be placed near the casket. Except for babies, children and saints, most Hindus are cremated. People usually wear white to the funeral, and flowers are welcomed.

Jewish Funerals

Jewish funerals need to take place within 24 hours of the deceased’s passing. The coffin is simple, and the body is not displayed. Traditionally, the Jewish faith only allows burials. Men cover their heads, and the Rabbi reads various prayers. Like the Christian burial, the coffin is lowered into the ground, and mourners place soil on the coffin’s top. People attending the funeral are expected to dress formally but do not have to wear black.

There are many more guidelines of what to expect when attending a funeral of a different faith. If you doubt what to wear or what to expect, ask a friend or the bereaved if you can. Alternatively, you can call the funeral home, church, mosque or venue where the funeral will be held for more details.

Visit our Sonja Smith Funeral Group Pinterest Board on Funeral Etiquette for more information.