Mourning is the state of grief which many people enter into after the death of a loved one. The term is also used to describe unique cultural rituals for dealing with such grief. Many cultures around the world have very distinctive mourning practices which are intended to help people process the role of death in their lives. Certain religions also have rigid mourning traditions.
Humans have been mourning each other for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that even early hominids grieved when members of a family or community died, performing burials and various rituals which were designed to help the community cope with the death. Early humans buried each other with tools they thought might be useful, along with flowers, textiles, and other objects, some of which have been remarkably well preserved.
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As a general rule, it is assumed that someone in mourning is in a state of extreme sorrow, even when the death is expected or even welcomed. Many cultures have specific rules for dealing with people who are grieving; these rules are often designed to be forgiving of social transgressions by those in mourning, and to create a community attitude which is respectful and supportive of those in mourning. Often, someone in mourning identifies him or herself by wearing somber colors or ritually cutting hair or clothing.
Many anthropologists are very interested in the ways that various cultures mourn their dead, because mourning traditions can provide interesting information about social norms and religious beliefs. Numerous studies have been published about mourning traditions around the world and throughout history, from the pomp and ceremony of Victorian mourning to the elaborate rituals which surround death in traditional Japanese families.
If someone belongs to a religious, social, or cultural group which has strict rules about mourning, these rules can encompass a variety of topics, from foods that people are allowed to eat to whether or not mourners can wear jewelry. These rules generally vary, depending on how close one is to the deceased and how long it has been since the death. If you know that you will be visiting someone who is in mourning, you may want to research his or her cultural traditions so that you can be as respectful as possible.
In societies without rigid rules about mourning and mourners, people who are in mourning are still treated carefully and with respect. Many people like to send cards or flowers to mourners to express sorrow for their loss, and people are often encouraged to be circumspect about conversational topics around mourners, so as not to refresh their sorrow.