In this age of modernity and technology, does it really matter what colors one wears to say goodbye to the dead?
On weekends, particularly Saturdays, most streets in Ghana become awash with mourners clad in red, black, and sometimes white clothing.
The Ghanaian is very superstitious and has a strong belief in ghosts and ancestors. It is believed the dead cannot rest in peace until a befitting funeral and burial ceremony are held for them. According such courtesies to the dead requires special funeral clothes, which traditionally come in red, black, brown, and white colors.
People sometimes have to pay a high price for these clothes. But the reality is, one cannot afford to attend a funeral in just any attire without attracting criticism. According to Dr. Dan Bright, a sociologist at the University of Ghana, funerals are special occasions in Ghana because they celebrate the life of the deceased. “When a person dies, he enters the spiritual realm, and for that matter, the ordinary cloth we wear will not be appropriate. It is a special event,” Bright said.
Culturally, the black and red attire for funeral ceremonies in Ghana signifies a grieving period. Traditionally, red is associated with danger and black with grief, hence the use of these colors to communicate the passing of a loved one.
However, when a person grows to a ripe old age of seventy years and above, the belief is that the person has lived long and has been blessed, so why not rejoice instead of grieve? Traditionally, white signifies victory or joy, so on such an occasion as the final funeral rites for someone over the age of seventy, the white cloth is used to celebrate the life of that person. In most cultures in Ghana, too, the white cloths are worn on Sunday, the final day of the funeral rites, to show relief in the assurance that the deceased has made a successful transition into the spirit world.
It isn’t easy trying to unravel the history behind the use of these colors, but as Dr. Bright points out: “These colors have become symbolic in our culture, and as we all grow, we get associated with them.”
According to Ghanaian customs and traditions: The Red cloth is often worn by close relatives to show how deeply they feel about the loss of their loved one.
The Black cloth is worn by distant relatives and well-wishers who come to mourn with the family. This shows that they are grieving and feel the pain of the family as if it were their own. Black is also associated with death and mourning in Ghana, hence the use of that color.
The White cloth is worn when the deceased was seventy years and above to celebrate having lived a full life. Rather than a cause for sadness, it is seen as a joyous occasion. The white also, in some cultures, represents resurrection and victory over death.
According to American customs and Western traditions, black dress is the appropriate color to depict mourning, remembrance, and the painful closure affected through the funeral rites. To wear white, or any other bright color, is viewed as a sign of disrespect to the deceased and the family.
While each culture throughout the world has its own customs and traditions when it comes to the use of color in funeral attire, it is worth noting the drastic differences between Ghanaian and Asian funeral customs.
East Asian countries predominantly use white, because in their cultures white is symbolic of death. Western influence has, however, altered contemporary East Asian funerals so that black is now permitted, traditionally combined with small white accessories, such as armbands.
The sharpest contrast between Ghana and China exists in respect to the color red. In Chinese culture, red represents happiness, and so would be highly offensive if worn to a funeral.
With technology constantly changing the way we live our lives, we can surely expect changes in the way we handle death. Already we are seeing funerals in Ghana being transformed into huge celebrations, and they are becoming more expensive. To add to that cost, one must carefully choose the acceptable colors of attire to fit with what society currently deems appropriate.
In the end, no matter what colors one should or should not wear, it is really all about honoring the memory of a friend or loved one and supporting the family through their loss.