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MOURNING (Heb. אֵבֶל), the expression of grief and sorrow over the death of a close relative, friend, national leader, or in response to a national calamity. The lamentation (Heb. קִינָה (kinah, qinah); נְהִי, nehi) is the specifically literary and musical expression of such grief. The rite of mourning most frequently attested in the narrative and poetic sections of the Bible is the rending of garments. Thus Reuben rends his garments on finding Joseph missing (Gen. 37:29). Jacob does so on seeing Joseph's bloodstained cloak (Gen. 37:34). Joshua responds in this way to the defeat at Ai (Josh. 7:6), Hezekiah, to the words of the Rab-Shakeh (ii Kings 19:1 = Isa. 37:1), and Mordecai, to news of the decree of genocide (Esth. 4:1). Job rends his garments on hearing of the death of his children (Job 1:20), and his friends tear their clothing to commiserate with him (2:12). The rending of garments may be simply an outlet for pent-up emotions, or it may have developed as a symbolic substitute for the mutilation of the flesh. Almost as frequent as the rending of garments is the wearing of sackcloth (e.g.,ii Sam. 3:31; Ps. 30:12; Lam. 2:10). Ezekiel prophesies that Tyre will mourn by the removal of embroidered garments and the donning of special mourning robes (Ezek. 26:16; cf. 7:27). The woman of Tekoa whom Joab sent to King David was likewise dressed in mourning garments (ii Sam. 14:2), which may be identical with the garments of widowhood worn by Tamar, the widow of Er (Gen. 38:14, 19). Micah suggests that it was not unusual for a mourner to appear naked (Micah 1:8). Other mourning practices which survived in later Judaism are the placing of dust on the head (Josh. 7:6; ii Sam. 13:19; Jer. 6:26; 25:34; Ezek. 27:30; Lam. 2:10 etc.; cf. Ta'an. 15b), refraining from wearing ornaments (Ex. 33:4; cf. Sh. Ar., yd 389:3), abstaining from anointing and washing (ii Sam. 12:20; cf. Ta'an. 1:6), and fasting (ii Sam. 3:35; Esth. 4:3; Ezra 10:6; Neh. 1:4; cf. Ta'an. 1:4ff.). Isaiah describes mourners beating their breasts (Heb. safad, Isa. 32:12). The Hebrew term for beating the breast (safad, misped; Akk. sipittu) becomes a general term for "mourning" (e.g., Gen. 23:2), which takes on the sense of "wailing" (i Kings 13:30; Micah 1:8). Other rites of mourning related to the hair and beard. At the death of Nadab and Abihu, apparently, the Israelites uncovered or disheveled their hair as a sign of mourning. Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar, who as priests were forbidden to mourn, were thus prohibited from following this practice (Lev. 10:6). While it became obligatory in later Judaism for mourners to let their hair grow (mk 14b), the prophets (Isa. 22:12; Jer. 16:6; Ezek. 7:18; Amos 8:10) describe tonsure as a standard rite of mourning. Similarly Job shaves his head on hearing of the death of his children (Job 1:20). Deuteronomy 21:12 even prescribes the shaving of the head as a rite of mourning to be observed by the gentile maiden taken captive in war. According to Ezekiel 24:17 it was customary to remove one's turban as an expression of grief (cf. Isa. 61:10). The covering of the head may also be attested as a rite of mourning in ii Samuel 15:30; Jeremiah 14:3–4 and Esther 6:12; 7:8, if the Hebrew ḥafui is derived from the Hebrew verb ḥafah, "to cover." If it is derived from the Arabic ḥāfi, "barefoot," which is also the root of Hebrew yaḥef, "barefoot," the latter references may corroborate the testimony of Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah. Alongside tonsure and the shaving of the beard, the prophets take for granted the practice of cutting gashes in the flesh of the hands or elsewhere (Jer. 16:6; 41:5). They seem unaware of any prohibition against these rites. Leviticus 21:5 prohibits only the priests from making incisions in the flesh, shaving the beard, and tonsure, as from all other rites of mourning, except on the occasion of the death of the priest's father, mother, son, daughter, brother, or unmarried sister. Leviticus 19:27–28 prohibits all Israel from shaving, cutting the hair, *tattooing, and making incisions as a rite of mourning. Deuteronomy 14:1 prohibits all Israel from making incisions in the flesh and from employing tonsure as a rite of mourning. In Leviticus 19 the prohibitions are motivated by the desire to avoid ritual impurity, while in Deuteronomy 14 they are motivated by the striving for holiness. Micah (3:7) and Ezekiel (24:17) mention the covering of the upper lip as an expression of grief. The same practice along with the uncovering (or disheveling) of the hair and the rending of garments is prescribed for lepers in Leviticus 13:45. In the Bible the typical posture for the mourner is sitting (Ezek. 26:16; Jonah 3:6; Job 2:13) or lying (ii Sam. 13:31; Lam. 2:21) on the ground, as in later Judaism (Sh. Ar., yd 387:1). Placing the hands on the head (ii Sam. 13:19; Jer. 2:37) and prostration (Jer. 4:28; 14:2; Ps. 35:14) are also attested. The Bible does not distinguish, as does later Judaism, between the mourning that precedes the funeral (Heb. *aninut) and that which follows burial (cf. Ber. 17bff.). The practices which later Judaism associates with the former are therefore referred to simply as rites of mourning in the Bible. Thus Daniel (Dan. 10:23) mourned by abstaining from meat and wine. Although the Mishnah (Ket. 4:4) prescribes the playing of flutes at funerals, the Bible associates mourning with the cessation of both dancing and instrumental music (Isa. 24:8; Jer. 31:12; Ps. 30:12; Job 30:31; Lam. 5:15; Eccles. 3:4), as do later Jewish authorities (Sot. 48a). From the association of gift-giving with the cessation of mourning in Esther 9:22, one may surmise that the exchange of gifts was forbidden to mourners, as in later Judaism (Sh. Ar., yd 385:3). Later Judaism understood its various mourning rites both as an affirmation of the value of the deceased (Sem. 9) and as an appeal to God for mercy (Ta'an. 2:1). Each of these approaches has been advocated to the exclusion of the other by modern schools of anthropology. Most likely both lie behind many of the biblical practices. T.H. Gaster suggests that the mutilation of the body was originally intended to provide the ghost of the departed with blood to drink, while the cutting of the hair enabled the ghost to draw on the strength it embodied.


Lamentations are poetic compositions functionally equivalent to the modern eulogy. Composed by literary giants like David (ii Sam. 1:17ff.; 3:33ff.) and Jeremiah (ii Chron. 35:25), these tributes were, in accordance with the standard literary usage, chanted rather than declaimed. These eulogies were frequently composed in a special meter, which modern scholars have designated as the qinah meter (i.e., lamentation meter). It is characterized by the division of each verse into two unequal parts, in contrast to the usually parallel structure of biblical poetry. Jeremiah speaks of a professional class of women who composed and chanted lamentations (mekonenot, meqonenot, Jer. 9:16). Their art was regarded as a branch of wisdom, and thus they are called "skilled" (Heb. ḥakhamot). Men and women singers made lamentations and preserved them for future generations as part of the general education of the young (ii Chron. 35:25). Another expression of grief was the exclamation ho-ho (Amos 5:16) or hoi (i Kings 13:30; Jer. 22:18; 34:5). A specified period of mourning is only prescribed by the Bible in connection with the captive gentile maiden (Deut. 21:13). She is required to mourn her parents for one month. The later Jewish custom of seven days of mourning is observed by Joseph on the death of Jacob (Gen. 50:10); the Egyptians mourned him for 70 (50:3)), the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead upon the burial of Saul and Jonathan (i Sam. 31:13 = i Chron. 10:12), and Job and his friends at the height of Job's suffering (Job 2:13). Daniel's observance of three weeks of mourning (Dan. 10:2) may reflect the author's awareness of the week as a standard period of mourning. Moses and Aaron were each mourned for 30 days (Num. 20:29; Deut. 34:8), while Jacob and Ephraim each mourned "many days" (Gen. 37:34; i Chron. 7:22) for their children. While Jeremiah (41:5) tells of contemporaries who expressed grief by bringing sacrifices to the Temple, Nehemiah (Neh. 8:9) suggests the incompatibility of religious festivities and mourning (cf. Ta'an. 2:8, 10). The comforting of mourners is accomplished by the tenderly spoken word (Isa. 40:1–2), by sitting with the mourner (Job. 2:13), by providing him with compensation for his loss (Gen. 24:67; Isa. 60:2–9), and by offering him bread and wine (ii Sam. 3:35; Jer. 16:7). The bread is called "bread of agony" (leḥem onashim, Ezek. 24:17; cf. leḥem ʾonim in Hos. 9:4), and the wine, "the cup of consolation" (Jer. 16:7). The serving of such a meal has been variously explained as an affirmation of the bonds between the survivors, a reaffirmation of life itself after a period of fasting from death to burial, and as an act of conviviality with the soul of the deceased.

[Mayer Irwin Gruber]

Talmudic and Medieval Periods

Although the laws and customs of mourning are largely based on the biblical references, many additional ones developed out of usage and custom and, as such, are of rabbinical rather than biblical authority. In general, there has been a consistency in mourning practices from the biblical era, but in particular between the talmudic period and modern times. With few exceptions, the rules of mourning described and laid down in the Talmud and the early sources are identical with those observed today. These laws were designed to provide both for the "dignity of the departed" and the "dignity of the living" (cf. Sanh. 46b–47a). The body, regarded as the creation of God and the dwelling place of the soul, was accorded every respect. Likewise, every attempt was made to ease the grief of the mourners and to share their sorrow. The pain of death was mitigated by viewing it as the moment of transition from the temporal world to the eternal world (Zohar No'ah, 66a). One of the rabbis interpreted the biblical verse "And, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31) to refer to death (Gen. R. 9:5, 10; see *Life and Death).

It was customary "to pour out all drawn water" in the neighborhood of the house in which the person died (Sh. Ar., yd 339:5). Originally deriving from folk beliefs, this custom was subsequently explained as a method of announcing a death since Jews were always reluctant to be the bearers of evil tidings (Siftei Kohen, yd 339:5, n. 9). Others interpreted that this act indicated that the deceased was an important person, therefore the supply of water was lessened just as "there was no water for the congregation" (Num. 20:2) after the death of Miriam (Be'er ha-Golah, yd 339:5, n. 8). The dead body was not left alone, and watchers remained with the corpse until the funeral, either to honor the dead or to guard the corpse against possible damage. These watchers were exempted from the performance of other positive commandments while engaged in this meritorious deed (Bet. 3:1). Before the funeral the body was ritually purified (see *tohorah). Professional women mourners, who clapped their hands in grief and sang dirges and lamentations, led the public display of grief at the funeral. Dirges were recited responsively while lamentations were sung in unison (mk 3:8, 9; see *Kinah). The prevalent rabbinic opinion was that only the first day of the mourning period was of biblical authority (Asheri to mk 3:27; 34b; Maim. Yad, Avel, 1:1), while the seven day mourning period was instituted by Moses (tj, Ket. 1:1, 25a). The rabbis distinguished four stages in the mourning period: *aninut, the period between death and burial; avelut or shivah, the seven days following burial; *sheloshim, the time until the 30th day after burial; and the first year (tj, mk 3:7, 83c).


During the aninut period, the mourner was called an onen. Although still obligated to abide by the negative precepts of the Torah, the onen was absolved from the performance of many positive religious duties such as the recital of the *Shema and the donning of tallit and tefillin (mk 23b). He thus indicated his respect for the memory of the deceased since he was so distraught that he could not discharge his religious obligations (Sem. 10; Deut. R. 9:1). In addition, freedom from certain religious obligations enabled the onen to attend to the needs of the dead and his burial without distraction. The rule that "he who is engaged in a religious act is exempt from performing other religious duties" applied (Suk. 25a). It was also forbidden for the onen to eat meat or drink wine (Ber. 17b) or overindulge in eating (tj, Ber. 3:1, 6a). If death occurred on the Sabbath, or if the Sabbath was part of the aninut period, the onen was obligated to discharge all his religious obligations (mk 23b), and he was even permitted to eat meat and drink wine on that day (Ber. 18a).


Immediately after the funeral, the shivah ("seven") mourning period began. The bereaved family gathered in the house of the deceased and sat on overturned couches or beds and enrobed their heads. The mourners were obligated to rend their garments and to recite the dayyan ha-emet ("the true Judge") blessing (see *Keri'ah). They were also not to leave the house (mk 23a), perform manual labor, conduct business transactions, bathe, anoint the body, cut the hair, cohabit, wear leather shoes, wash clothes, greet acquaintances, and study the Torah (mk 15a–b). They were, however, permitted to study sorrowful portions of the Bible and Talmud such as Job, Lamentations, parts of Jeremiah, and the laws of mourning. The mourner's first meal after the funeral was known as Se'uddat Havra'ah (Meal of Consolation). The meal was provided by friends and neighbors in accordance with the talmudic injunction that "a mourner is forbidden to eat of his own bread on the first day (of mourning" (mk 27b). It was also forbidden for the mourner to don tefillin on the first day of the shivah period (Ket. 6b; Sh. Ar., yd 388:1). The rabbis considered the first three days as the most intense, declaring, "Three days for weeping and seven for lamenting" (mk 27b).


Modified mourning continued through the sheloshim period when the mourner was told "not to cut the hair and wear pressed clothes" (mk 27b). During the sheloshim it was also forbidden for the mourner to marry, to attend places of entertainment or festive events (even when primarily of religious significance), to embark on a business journey, or to participate in social gatherings (mk 22b–23a; Yad, Avel 6:2). When mourning for parents, some of the above prohibitions remained applicable during the entire 12 months following the day of death. The mourner was not permitted to trim his hair until his companions rebuked him. He was also enjoined from entering "a house of rejoicing" during this period (mk 22b).

relationships requiring mourning

The observance of these formal rules of mourning was required for the nearest of kin corresponding to those for whom a priest was to defile himself, i.e., a wife (husband), father, mother, son, daughter, brother, and sister (Lev. 21:1–3; mk 20b), but not an infant less than 30 days old (Yad, Avel 1:6). The Talmud also relates instances when aspects of mourning were observed upon the death of teachers and scholars. Thus when R. Johanan died, R. Ammi observed the seven and the 30 days of mourning (mk 25b). In mourning for a ḥakham one bared the arm and shoulder on the right for the av bet din on the left, and for a nasi on both sides (mk 22b; Sem. 9:2).

termination of mourning

Although the Sabbath was included in the seven days of mourning, no outward signs of mourning were permitted on that day. Private observances such as the prohibition against washing remained in force on the Sabbath (mk 23b; Maim, Yad, Avel 10:1). If burial took place before a festival and the mourner observed the mourning rite for even a short period prior to the festival, the entire shivah period was annulled by the holiday. If the shivah had been completed, then the incoming festival canceled the entire sheloshim period. If, however, the funeral took place on *Ḥol ha-Mo'ed, the shivah and sheloshim were observed after the termination of the festival. In the Diaspora, the last day of the festival counted as one of the days of the shivah and sheloshim (mk 3:5–7; Sh. Ar., yd 399, 13; 400).

Relatives and friends visited the mourner during the week of shivah. Discreet individuals expressed their condolences in sympathetic silence (cf. Job. 2:13). In general, visitors were advised not to speak until the mourner began the conversation (mk 28b). Upon leaving, it became customary for the visitor to approach the mourner and say: "May the Almighty comfort you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem." Rabbinical literature explained the reasons for the choice of seven as the main period of mourning. Commenting on the verse "I will turn your feasts into mourning" (Amos 8:10), it was explained that, just as the days of the feasts (Passover and Sukkot) are seven, so the period of mourning is also for seven days (mk 20a). The Zohar gives a mystical reason: "For seven days the soul goes to and fro between the house and the grave, mourning for the body" (Zohar, Va-Yeḥi, 226a). The institution of shivah was considered even more ancient than the flood. The rabbis interpreted "And it came to pass after the seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth" (Gen. 7:10) to mean that God postponed retribution until after the seven days of mourning for the righteous Methuselah (Gen. 5:27; Sanh. 108b). The rabbis discouraged excessive mourning. Jeremiah's charge, "Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him" (Jer. 22:10) was interpreted to mean "weep not in excess, nor bemoan too much." Accordingly, intensive mourning ceased after the sheloshim. Thereafter, God declares to the one who continues to mourn "Ye are not more compassionate toward the departed than I." The rabbis stated that whoever indulged in excessive grief over his dead finally had to weep for another. It was related that a woman in the neighborhood of R. Huna ultimately lost all seven of her sons because she wept excessively for each one (mk 27b).

Modern Practice

Most of the observances described above are still practiced by traditional Jews all over the world. In most communities today there are burial societies or funeral chapels which arrange the details of the tohorah and the burial. The onenim still have the responsibility of contacting the burial society, as well as obtaining death and other certificates which may be required before the funeral can be held. They must also inform relatives and friends so that proper honor and respect can be paid to the deceased. In the house of shivah couches and beds are no longer overturned, the mourners sitting instead on low stools. With the exception that mourners no longer muffle their heads, all the other restrictions are observed. Slippers of cloth, felt, or rubber are worn instead of leather footwear. Women also abstain from using cosmetics during the shivah period. A candle burns continuously in the house of mourning for the entire seven days. It has also become customary to cover mirrors or turn them to the wall. Among the explanations offered for this practice is that prayer is forbidden in front of a mirror, since the reflection distracts the attention of the worshiper. Another interpretation is that mirrors, often associated with vanity, are out of place at such a time.

Prayers in the Home and Changes in the Liturgy

By the end of the Middle Ages, praying in the house of shivah was a well-established custom (cf. Shab. 152a–b). Nowadays a *minyan gathers in the house of mourning for the daily Shaḥarit and Minḥah-Ma'ariv services. For the reading of the Law during these home services a Torah Scroll may be borrowed from the communal synagogue, provided that proper facilities for its care are available and that it will be read on three occasions. If it is not possible to obtain a minyan in the home, the mourner may attend the synagogue for services and the recitation of *Kaddish. Generally the mourner attends the synagogue for Sabbath and festival service. In the house of mourning and in the mourner's personal prayers, the following changes in the normal order of the services are made:

(1) The talmudical passage pittum ha-ketoret (Ker. 6a; Hertz, Prayer, 546), describing the compounding of the incenses for daily offering in the Temple, is omitted by the mourner since he is forbidden to study Torah.

(2) Likewise the mourner omits the recitation of eizehu mekoman, the chapter of the Mishnah which describes the appointed places for the various animal sacrifices (Zev. 5:1–8; Hertz, Prayer, 38–40).

(3) The *Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:24–26; Hertz, Prayer, 154), which concludes with the greeting of peace, is omitted in the house of mourning because the mourner may not extend greetings. In Jerusalem, however, it is recited.

(4) *Taḥanun (Hertz, Prayer, 168–86) is omitted because its theme, "I have sinned before thee," is deemed inappropriate for a mourner.

(5) Psalm 20 (Hertz, Prayer, 200) is also omitted because it will intensify the mourner's grief during his "day of trouble" (Ps. 20:2).

(6) The verse beginning, "And as for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord" is omitted from the u-Va le-Ẓiyyon (Hertz, Prayer, 202) because the mourner does not desire a covenant which will perpetuate his unhappy situation.

(7) Psalm 49, which declares that the injustices and inequalities of human existence are corrected in the hereafter, is recited after the daily service in the house of mourning (Hertz, Prayer, 1088–90).

(8) The mourner omits the six Psalms (95–99; 29) recited before the Ma'ariv service on Friday night (Hertz, Prayer, 346–54). He remains in the anteroom until the conclusion of *lekhah dodi. He then enters the synagogue and the congregation rises and greets him with the traditional greeting extended to mourners: "May the Almighty…" Hertz, Prayer, 358).

(9) *Hallel (Hertz, Prayer, 756–72) is not recited in the house of shivah on *Rosh Ḥodesh because it contains such verses as "The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence" (Ps. 115:17), and "This is the day which the Lord hath made, we will rejoice and be glad in it" (Ps. 118:24). In most rites, however, it is recited when the mourners leave the room. If Rosh Ḥodesh coincides with the Sabbath, Hallel should be recited even if the services are being held in the house of mourning since no public display of mourning is permissible on the Sabbath.

(10) The mourner is not called up to the reading of the Law during the week of shivah even if he is the only kohen or levite in the congregation.

There are indications that it was customary for mourners to wear black throughout the sheloshim (Yoma 39b; Shab. 114a; Sem. 2:8). Nowadays, however, Jews are not permitted to dress in black clothing or to wear black armbands as signs of mourning since these are considered non-Jewish customs (see *Ḥukkat ha-Goi). Similarly, the bringing of gifts to the house of shivah is considered an emulation of non-Jewish practice. During the sheloshim period it is customary for the mourner to change his synagogue seat for weekday services. When mourning for parents, a different seat is occupied during the entire 12-month period. The *Kaddish, however, is recited by the person mourning a parent or child for 11 months. *Yahrzeit is observed on the anniversary of the Jewish date of the person's death. There is an opinion that when three or more days elapse between death and burial, the first Yahrzeit is observed on the date of burial. Nevertheless, during subsequent years, Yahrzeit is observed on the anniversary of the date of death (Taz, Shakh and Be'er Hetev, yd 402:12). Reform Judaism has greatly modified the above laws and customs. The week of mourning is often shortened, and, frequently, only a period of three days is observed. Practices such as the rending of garments, sitting on low stools, not wearing leather shoes, and not attending places of entertainment during the period of the 30 days or first year are not generally observed by Reform Jews. Some have the religious services in the home only for the first three days, while others have them only after returning home from the funeral.

[Aaron Rothkoff]


bible: K. Budde, in: zaw, 2 (1882), 1–52; B. Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (1925); E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1947); Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 2 (1960), 544–56; K.V.H. Ringgren, Israelite Religion (1963), 239–42; T.H. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (1969), 590–604. talmud and medieval periods: Y.M. Tykocinski, Sefer Gesher ha-Ḥayyim (1947: 19602); J.J.(L.) Greenwald (Grunwald), Kol-Bo al Aveilut, 3 vols. (1947–52); C.N. Denburg, Code of Hebrew Law, 1 (1954); B. Yashar, Seder ha-Aveilut ve-ha-Niḥumim (1956); S. Spero, Journey into Light (1959); H.M. Rabinowicz, Guide to Life (1964); D. Zlotnick (ed. and tr.), The Tractate "Mourning" (Semahot) (1966); M. Lamm, Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (1969). add. bibliography: S. Glick, Light and Consolation: The Development of Jewish Consolation Practices (2004).

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"The sorrow for the dead," mused Washington Irving (1783–1859) in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819–1820), "is the only sorrow from which we refuse to be divorced" (p. 153). The nineteenth-century literary preoccupation with mourning does indeed suggest a culture wedded to its sorrow over the dead. Depictions of mourning, much like those of marriage, reveal its dual function as a means of social ordering and as an index of emotional, or affective, and psychic topographies. The Puritan emphasis on the moment of death as a theologically instructive event gave way during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to an intense concentration on the emotional aftermath of loss. This shift dramatically altered the social meaning of death. Literary representations of mourning in this changed context foreground both an increasing interest in interiority and an investment in the development of proper affective relations to the past.

Twentieth- and twenty-first-century critics have often viewed with suspicion the elaborate culture of mourning developed in the nineteenth century, assessing it as a mode of sentimentalized false consciousness covering an inability to deal with the grim reality of death. But many cultural and ideological factors beyond the fear of death need to be considered when assessing past bereavement practices. In nineteenth-century culture, mourning designated both a set of conventions designed to order the borderline period between the loss of an intimate and the bereaved person's reintegration into ordinary social life, and an ongoing emotional activity suggesting the tenacity of ties to the departed. The spiritual significance of mourning was linked to the emotional value assigned by Romantic and sentimental writers to grief's refining effect on the personal integrity of the survivor. Literary manifestations of mourning depict a new relationship between feeling, (social) space, and (historical) time suggested by the aesthetics of memorial; a regulation of expressions of grief that addressed both the universality of sorrow and the racial, cultural, and gender specificity of mourning behavior; and the connections between the solicitation of feeling around mourning and appeals for social reform.


Readers steeped in the post-Freudian understanding of mourning as a psychological process must recall that in the nineteenth century the term "mourning" indicated first of all a set of social conventions. The formal mourning period was highly ritualized: proscriptions on social events and communication, the draping of the home of the bereaved, and mourning clothes and veils all formed part of an elaborate system marking both the degree of kinship between the mourner and the departed and the time elapsed since death. While adherence to these conventions was understood primarily as a mark of respect for the dead, a refusal to observe formal mourning also suggested a lack of concern for communal norms. In the mid-century best-seller The Wide, Wide World (1851), by Susan Warner (1819–1885), for instance, the protagonist Ellen Montgomery, sent to live with her hard-hearted Aunt Fortune while her parents travel in Europe, learns of her mother's death through the scandalized gossip of neighbors who fault Fortune for not having dressed the girl in mourning. Paying too much attention to social conventions, however, was viewed as potentially more injurious than paying too little, for such attention implied that the departed could be replaced by the commodities of condolence. In her novel Hope Leslie (1827), Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867) disparages the embrace of fashionable mourning in a scene in which the protagonist's good-natured but foolish aunt, Mrs. Grafton, cheerfully explains how her friend Lady Penyvére managed to console herself for the disastrous loss of an entire family by ordering mourning clothes: "That is the great use of wearing mourning, as she said: it takes the mind off from trouble." Hope responds by gently upbraiding her aunt for confusing consumption with consolation; having recently survived a dangerous situation, she reminds her aunt, "If . . . I had lost my life the other day, all the mourning in the king's realm would not have turned your thoughts from trouble" (p. 268).

An insistence on the importance of feeling, rather than mere adherence to social form, dominated nineteenth-century literary depictions of mourning. A deep emotional relationship to the dead not only provided testimony to the merits of the departed but was also understood as a means of self-improvement for the mourner. As Irving's Geoffrey Crayon insists, "the natural effect of sorrow over the dead is to refine and elevate the mind" (p. 149). Crayon compares the emptiness of the contemporary urban funeral to the banality of modern-day poetry, which, he contends, lacks the natural pathos of Shakespeare. Both failures, he asserts, result from the modern attention to form over content, a preference that has not yet infiltrated the charming customs of rural memorial: "There is certainly something more affecting in these prompt and spontaneous offerings of nature, than in the most costly monuments of art" (p. 150). The spontaneous memorial speaks more passionately than the artificial monument because the former testifies to a sincere emotional connection between the mourner and the departed, the kind of sincerity that constitutes the heart of the truly "poetical," as opposed to the "polite" alienation of modern life (p. 151). The quasi-spiritual significance assigned by romantics such as Crayon to the mourner's feelings turned emotion into a conduit for meaningful relations between past and present, relations that might regenerate the affective impoverishment of the modern world even as individual grief forced mourners to confront their own defects in character.

Such romanticized assumptions about the affective pedagogy of mourning shaped the aesthetics of memorial in the nineteenth century. The new "rural cemeteries" that appeared in the second quarter of the century were intended to produce the kind of contemplative relationship to the dead that Irving's Crayon lauds. The design of these park-like burial grounds, strewn with trees and ponds and sectioned by hills and winding paths, emphasized a Romantic approach to consolation, insisting on the spiritually regenerative capacity of nature while providing mourners with a measure of privacy for the indulgence of sorrow over the dead. The dominant motifs of nineteenth-century mourning art (classically robed mourners with heads bowed over graves, weeping willows, trees and urns symbolizing the eternity of the spirit) similarly suggested a dual connection to the eternal spirit of the departed and the earthly sorrow of the bereaved. The mourner in this new configuration was charged with the duty of carrying a personal connection to the past forward in time.

Guided by these convictions, literary scenes of bereavement deployed mourning itself as a form of consolation for loss, suggesting that mourning was not simply a mark of the value of the departed but itself a valuable and improving activity. This understanding permeated the literary forms and conventions most congenial to mourning: deathbed scenes and sentimental elegies. Initially popularized in evangelical tracts as episodes of spiritual pedagogy, deathbed scenes in nineteenth-century fiction supplemented the original focus on the religious authority of the dying person with an increased emphasis on the emotional testimony of the witnesses/mourners; such testimony spoke to the bonds grief created among survivors. In perhaps the best-known deathbed scene of nineteenth-century American fiction, the death of young Eva St. Clare in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) is closely followed by an exchange between the distraught slave girl Topsy, who laments that Eva was the only person to ever treat her kindly, and Miss Ophelia, Eva's northern aunt, who, touched by the child's distress, resolves to imitate Eva's behavior, sealing the pact by weeping along with Topsy.

The nineteenth-century poetic elegy also insisted on the value of mourning. Even as it bewailed the irrevocable loss of the irreplaceable dead, its focus on the painful feelings of the speaker/mourner became a form of consolation. In his elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, a bereft Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) laments the silencing of his friend's pen, but the poem's attention to the pain of mourning as an opening to the speaker's dreamlike recollection of the past compensates in part for the impossibility of reversing time. In "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1867), an intimate elegy to Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) also uses sorrow over the dead as a means of gaining an alternative perspective on the passage of time. The poet-speaker's grief over the departed, which returns each spring on the anniversary of the assassination, accompanies the regenerative blooming of the natural world. But suffering, the poem contends, is something from which the dead are exempted; it is rather for those who remain behind and is thus to be embraced as part of nature, both as a sign of loss and as a sign of life.


In the final chapter of The Last of the Mohicans (1826), by James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), the frenetic adventure that dominates the novel gives way to a leisurely depiction of the funeral rites for the young Mohican sachem Uncas. Uncas's death is commemorated by an elaborate ceremony that Cooper adapted, with a number of Romantic flourishes, from John Heckewelder's ethnographic account of a Lenni Lenape funeral. Recounting the ornate formality of these rites, from the long, solemn period of near-motionless waiting with which the service opens to the elaborate song of lament contributed by a group of female mourners and finally to the ritual upbraiding of the young chief for abandoning his tribe by the grief-stricken survivors, Cooper emphasizes the touching emotional undercur-rent that runs throughout, coupling an insistence on the exotic nature of Indian ritual with an appeal to the universality of true feeling.

The nineteenth-century investment in the value of sorrow enabled mourning to be understood as a unifying force. The deep feeling associated with true mourning was seen not simply as creating authentic channels of historical transmission and avenues for self-improvement but as contributing as well to the establishment of affective social bonds between otherwise alienated strangers. Condolence rituals formalized the human capacity for sympathy that the eighteenth-century British philosopher Adam Smith analyzed as the foundation of democratic self-regulation, establishing a kind of fellowship of the bereaved (Theory of the Moral Sentiments, 1759). Accounts of such bonds—whether in Cooper's fictionalized account of the passing of Uncas, which transformed the Delaware into a "nation of mourners," or in the outpouring of writing that followed the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865—used the language of private feeling to emphasize their sincerity. Public figures became not simply revered but cherished and loved, as mourner-citizens participated in a spontaneous, affective coming together more durable than acts of collective democratic decision making such as voting. Public mourning, in this sense, provided nationalism with a spiritual dimension.

The multiple modes of productivity attached to mourning in the nineteenth century, however, required an observance of religious, cultural, and behavioral norms in the expression of grief in order to ensure that it functioned properly. Cooper's depiction of the Delaware funeral in The Last of the Mohicans is not intended for imitation; its melancholy may appeal to the reader but the "creed" the Delaware embrace is, the novel suggests, unacceptable to a civilized Christian culture. Accordingly, the chapter juxtaposes the Delaware rites and the simultaneous funeral of Cora Munro, a young Englishwoman. Although Cora is also attended by Delaware women and buried in the woods, her service, conducted by the colonial psalmodist David Gamut, consists of a simple hymn and prayer. The Christian burial ritual allows the novel at once to embrace the natural spirituality of true feeling and to assert the superiority of civilized Christian cultures over the Delaware culture, which, it implies, will soon follow the young sachem to the grave. The touching spectacle of Indian mourning serves, in effect, as an elegy for Native American culture as a whole.

The restrained norms of Christian bereavement were reflected in the increased attention given to the emotional dimension of mourning throughout the nineteenth century. Condolence manuals and sentimental literature alike insisted that, however heartfelt, mourning should never remain untempered by spiritual awareness. While grief was expected as a mark of attachment to the dead and was embraced as an opportunity for refinement on the part of the living, excessive indulgence in mourning was seen as a mark of disrespect for both the living and the dead. In The Wide, Wide World, for instance, Ellen Montgomery's prolonged grief for her mother is rebuked by her "adopted" brother John Humphreys, who reminds her of her duty to be consoled by pointing out that her mother, a Christian, would have wanted nothing less. Unrestrained mourning also had dangerous social implications, as comparative accounts of the denial and the refusal of consolation in Uncle Tom's Cabin suggest. Prue, a much-abused slave, is deprived of the opportunity to mourn her infant child by a harsh mistress. Unable to cope with her sorrow, she takes to drinking and dies a horrific, solitary death. Prue's fate is implicitly juxtaposed to that of Marie St. Clare, mistress of the St. Clare plantation and the mother of Eva. Marie's melodramatic fits of grief in the wake of her daughter's death fail to bring about any improvement in her character; moreover, they have a profoundly negative effect on the other members of the household, who are denied time for their own mourning because of the demands created by her hysteria. Even as well-composed mourning was understood to produce both interior refinement and external cohesion, abuses of grief were held to damage both the psychic and the social realms.

The prevalence of female mourners in didactic examples of unrestrained grief suggests a gendered division of labor in the culture of mourning. Yet, while the conventional allegorical figuration of the mourner as a woman has led many to assume that mourning in the nineteenth century was women's work, condolence manuals and sentimental literature suggested that men grieved as profoundly as women. But while men were indeed expected to mourn, they were under additional pressure to moderate expressions of feeling, particularly in public. True manliness consisted of an ability to feel deeply and, at the same time, to restrain the physical manifestations of feeling. In the final scene of Cooper's The Pioneers (1823), for instance, the grizzled frontiersman Natty Bumppo weeps before the grave of his lifelong companion, the Mohican sachem Chingachgook, but when his friends Oliver and Elizabeth Effingham approach, he hastily wipes away his tears. And Oliver also reacts with manfully restrained sorrow to the death of Chingachgook, who had adopted him as a son, and to the departure of Natty for the western wilderness. Women, in contrast, were expected to display grief openly, if not to excess; accordingly, Elizabeth, Oliver's wife, weeps unashamedly throughout the touching scene. In this sense, the part played by women in the cult of the mourner was in many ways comparable to the American social critic Thorstein Veblen's account, at the turn of the century, of their function in the culture of consumption (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899): women give ceremonial expression to values embraced by the culture as a whole.


The nineteenth-century belief in the moral elevation of the mourner lent itself to the depiction of scenes of mourning as a call for social reform. This kind of appeal resounds throughout the pages of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, as the narrator repeatedly pleads with her readers to sympathize with the suffering of slaves by comparing their sorrows to the grief common to all who have mourned the loss of a loved one. But cultural differences in the experience of grief were also treated as evidence of the need for social change. The matter-of-fact description, in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), of the author's lack of emotional response to his mother's death—"Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should probably have felt at the death of a stranger" (p. 16)—might have struck readers steeped in the culture of mourning as shocking. Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), however, makes clear in his narrative that his startling failure to feel the loss of his mother is an effect of slavery's destruction of the very connections most valorized in the culture of mourning, namely, the deep emotional bonds that made familial affect the cornerstone of the social. Ten years later, in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass amplified this reflection, adding that he maintains a "lifelong, standing grief" not over his mother's death itself but over the loss of connection to her enforced by the slave system (p. 155).

While some nineteenth-century writers used mourning as a means of foregrounding the need for social reforms, others critically interrogated the assumptions surrounding the culture of mourning itself. In his short story "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) questions the tendency to make moral distinctions between types of sorrow. In the story, the residents of a New England village are disturbed when their minister, Reverend Hooper, suddenly and without explanation dons a black veil. This conventional sign of bereavement, unmoored from familiar social coordinates, becomes deeply unsettling, and the villagers anxiously debate whether the veil signifies ordinary mourning, the "type of an innocent sorrow," or a mark of penance for secret sin (p. 46). Hooper, however, refuses to choose between the two motives assigned to his veil, remarking only that both are common to all humanity. His refusal undermines the habitual assumption that grief is redemptive, while shame is simply corrosive. Finally, on his deathbed, Hooper announces that the veil reflects the habit of concealment itself. His insistence that all mortals hide both their sins and their deepest feelings from one another further troubles the tendency to depict grief as morally refining.

An even deeper critique of the assumptions surrounding the culture of mourning is conveyed by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) in his essay "Experience" (1844). Emerson notes that while people tend to seek truth in grief, it does not reveal itself there; reflecting on the death of his own son, he argues that such calamities "leave me as [they] found me,—neither better nor worse" (p. 29). Yet while Emerson challenges the productivity assigned to sorrow over the dead in the nineteenth century, his essay reproduces the desire for this productivity, the longing for authentic emotional experience as compensation for human "evanescence." Emerson's mournful renunciation of this fantasy—"I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature" (p. 29)—might be read as an elegiac reflection on the culture of mourning as a whole.

See alsoThe Gates Ajar;Indians; Individualism and Community; Landscape Architecture; Leatherstocking Tales; Lyric Poetry; Manhood; Reform; Romanticism; Slavery; Uncle Tom's Cabin;The Wide, Wide World


Primary Works

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: ANarrative of the Year 1757. 1826. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. 1823. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Experience." 1844. In The CollectedWorks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3, pp. 25–49. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Minister's Black Veil: A Parable." 1836. Twice-Told Tales, edited by William Charvat et al., pp. 37–53. In The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, volume 9. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974.

Heckewelder, John. History, Manners, and Customs of theIndian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States. 1819. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876.

Irving, Washington. "Rural Funerals." 1819–1820. In TheSketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, pp. 144–157. Reading, Pa.: Dutton, 1936.

"A Lady." The Mourner's Book. Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey, 1850.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Hawthorne." 1866. In Poems and Other Writings, pp. 474–475. New York: Library of America, 2000.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. 1827. Edited by Mary Kelley. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Syme, J. B., ed. The Mourner's Friend; or, Sighs of Sympathy for Those Who Sorrow. Worcester: William Allen, 1852.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. 1852. Edited by Ann Douglas. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Whitman, Walt. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." 1867. In Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, pp. 459–467. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Warner, Susan. The Wide, Wide World. 1851. New York: Feminist Press, 1987.

Secondary Works

Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. Translated by Helen Weaver. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Farrell, James J. Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830–1920. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Halttunen, Karen. "Mourning the Dead: A Study in Sentimental Ritual." In her Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870, pp. 124–152. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Kete, Mary Louise. Sentimental Collaborations: Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Pike, Martha V., and Janice Gray Armstrong. A Time toMourn: Expressions of Grief in Nineteenth-Century America. Stony Brook, N.Y.: The Museums at Stony Brook, 1980.

Schorsch, Anita. Mourning becomes America: Mourning Art in the New Nation. Clinton N.J.: Main Street Press, 1976.

Sloane, David Charles. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Dana Luciano

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The term mourning is probably the single most inconsistently used term in thanatology. Traditionally it has been used to refer to the cultural and/or public display of grief through one's behaviors. This usage focuses on mourning as a vehicle for social communication. In this regard, mourning can pertain at various times to specific rituals, particular outward signs (e.g., black clothes or an arm-band), the identification of who is to be recognized as bereaved, and a specified time period during which signs of grief can be shown. However, the term has been assigned other meanings that contribute to its being used interchangeably with the terms "grief" and "bereavement" to denote personal and subjective responses to loss. As yet there is no total consensus on the use of the term; however, in this essay mourning is discussed as a distinct phenomenon that is stimulated by the experience of loss (i.e., bereavement). While it encompasses "acute grief," it includes and implies substantially more than that experience.

Conceptual Development

Theories of mourning have changed significantly over time. Initially psychoanalytic conceptualizations held sway. There was particularly strong, early input from Sigmund Freud, whose oft-quoted 1917 paper "Mourning and Melancholia" tends to be cited by scholars erroneously as the first work on the topic. (Among others, there was Karl Abraham's 1911 paper on the treatment of manic depression and allied conditions, which partially prompted Freud's classic paper.) Later substantial psychoanalytic refinement was provided by Erich Lindemann, whose 1944 paper "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief" shared with Freud's particular prominence as a basis for later observers's comparisons, agreements, and disagreements. Coming originally out of the psychoanalytic school, John Bowlby, the chief architect of attachment theory, then incorporated the philosophical tenets of that theory into the theory of mourning a number of publications during the 1960s through 1980s. Bowlby dispensed with abstract and unverifiable psychoanalytic concepts and incorporated principles from ethology, control theory, and cognitive psychology. Early-twenty-first-century thanatologists hold views that are strongly influenced, at least in large part, by attachment theory. This makes it the predominant, although not exclusive, perspective from which mourning is currently explained. While Bowlby's protégé, Colin Murray Parkes, has continued to expand understanding of mourning in numerous ways along attachment dimensions, he also has promoted the concept of psychosocial transitions that has been well incorporated into contemporary mourning theory.

Concepts from three theoretically and clinically related domains are being incorporated into the thinking about mourning. Each has generated a number of important implications about mourning, selected examples of which are noted herein.

From the generic psychological arena of stress, coping, and adaptation theory comes the notions that mourning involves more than merely reacting to loss, but active attempts to contend with it; that the individual's cognitive appraisal of the loss, its implications, and one's coping attempts is a critical factor determining response and accounting for its idiosyncrasy; and that successful outcome of mourning appears to require both problem- and emotion-focused coping.

Out of the realm of traumatic stress and victimization theories are being adopted into scientific understanding of mourning the ideas that assumptive world revision is necessary after major loss; that acute grief is a form of traumatic stress reaction; and that posttraumatic growth is possible as a positive consequence of loss.

From the province of cognitive theory, particularly constructivism, stems the belief that much of the painfulness of bereavement comes from disruption of the mourner's personal construct system caused by the death; the expectation that personal meaning reconstruction is at the heart of mourning; and the realization that there is traditionally an insufficient appreciation of cognitive processes in bereavement due to relative overfocus upon affective processing and failure to comprehend the two main sets of cognitive processes (i.e., the mourner's learning about the reality and implications of the loved one's death, and the mourner's transforming to incorporate the changes necessitated by the death).

Eight specific bereavement-related notions are also becoming assimilated into contemporary understanding of mourning:

  1. Mourning does not necessarily proceed in invariant sequences; staged-based models of mourning are inaccurate in implying that all mourners undergo the same processes in the same order.
  2. Continued connections to the deceased are not necessarily pathological and, if appropriate, can be therapeutic.
  3. People do not necessarily "get over" major loss, but learn to live with it, with struggles to do so persisting far longer than previously thought.
  4. Routinely suggesting professional intervention for all mourners can be harmful; it tends only to be regularly needed by bereaved persons who are at high risk.
  5. There is no one way to respond to loss; Western mental health has been biased in favor of emotional expressiveness and this has been harmful to people with other styles.
  6. Mourning and meaning making occur not only on an intrapersonal individual level, but also on an interpersonal familial/social level.
  7. Mourning can become complicated; this need not automatically suggest pathology on the mourner's part, but may be due to other factors (e.g., circumstances of the death, the role of the deceased, and availability of support, among others).
  8. Mourning is culturally relative.

Taken together, these associated concepts and specific bereavement-related notions have significantly broadened and deepened the comprehension of mourning, and enhanced appreciation of the complex challenges and experiences that it brings to mourners.

Mourning and Grief: Definitions and Distinctions

To comprehend mourning, it is necessary first to understand its distinctions from and relationship to grief. There is much to be gained by distinguishing between acute grief reactions to loss and the psychosocial labors of mourning undertaken over time to live with that loss. To assert that they are the same disregards two very different sets of experiences and demands, and seriously compromises bereavement intervention and research efforts. This discussion is predicated upon Therese A. Rando's 1993 model of mourning, which was developed specifically in relation to Western society. Consistent with the action-oriented nature of mourning, aprocess rather than content focus is maintained in this discussion.

Grief refers to the process of experiencing the psychological, behavioral, social, and physical reactions to the perception of loss. A grief response expresses one or a combination of four things: (1) the mourner's feelings about the loss and the deprivation it causes (e.g., sorrow, depression, guilt); (2) the mourner's protest at the loss and wish to undo it and have it not be true (e.g., anger, searching, preoccupation with the deceased); (3) the effects caused by the assault on the mourner as a result of the loss (e.g., traumatic stress, disorganization, physical symptoms); and (4) the mourner's personal actions stimulated by any of the previous three (e.g., crying, social withdrawal, increased use of medication or psychoactive substances).

However, the ultimate goal in contending with any major loss is for the individual experiencing it to be able to recognize that the loved one truly is gone and to make the necessary internal (psychological) and external (behavioral and social) changes to incorporate that loss into his or her ongoing life. Grief in itself cannot accomplish what is required to reach this goal. As solely a complex set of passive reactions to the loss, it fails to take the individual far enough.

Accommodation suggests an adaptation to make room for a particular circumstance. Clinical experience suggests that it is to be preferred over the term resolution, which insinuates a once-andfor-all closure that typically is not achievedor even desirableafter the death of a dearly loved one. The bereaved must make a series of readjustments to cope with, compensate for, and adapt to the absence of what has been lost physically and/or psychosocially. Failure to make the proper adaptations and re-orientations necessitated by the loss leaves the survivor related inappropriately to the lost person and the now-defunct old world.

For these reasons, grief is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to come to successful accommodation of a loss. Grief is to mourning like infancy is to childhood: It is the beginning, but not the entire course, of events. However, it is pivotal because without the experiences and learning provided by acute griefwhere the mourner confronts and is taught the reality of the loss and the need for the mourner to change is made clearthe rest of mourning cannot take place.

Mourning, then, encompasses much more than grief, which starts it off. It refers as well to the consequent conscious and unconscious processes and courses of action that promote three operations, each with its own particular focus, that enable the individual ultimately to accommodate the loss. The first operation promoted by mourning is the undoing of the psychosocial ties that had bound the mourner to the loved one when that person was alive, with the eventual facilitation of new ties appropriate to that person's now being physically dead. The focus is internal, upon the mourner's readjustment vis-à-vis the deceased. In the second operation, mourning processes help the mourner to adapt to the loss. The focus again is internal, upon the self and the making of revisions in one's assumptive world and one's identity insofar as the loss invalidates certain of one's assumptive world elements and aspects of one's previous identity. The third operation promoted by mourning helps the mourner learn how to live healthily in the new world without the deceased. Here, the focus is external, upon the physical and social world as the mourner attempts to move adaptively into it without the loved one through the adoption of new ways of being in that world and reinvestment in it.

Uncomplicated reactions of acute grief may last many months and in some cases even longer. In contrast, because of its myriad aspects and demands, uncomplicated mourning can last a number of years, long after acute grief is spent. In fact, it lasts forever for many people, as there often is revisiting and reworking of major loss over time. This does not necessarily mean that the individual is in acute grief all that time (that would be considered pathological), nor that the reality of the loss and its implications were not fully comprehended earlier on. It merely speaks to the ongoing nature of living with major loss.

The distinction between grief and mourning is crucial not only to the maintenance of appropriate expectations for mourners, but also for helping them cope. Many individuals assist the bereaved with the beginning processes of acute grief by enabling their reactions to the loss, but do not assist sufficiently, if at all, with the important latter processes of readjustment. Consequently, mourners are frequently left alone to reshape themselves and their world after the loss of a loved one, and suffer additionally as a result.

Requirements for Healthy Mourning

For healthy mourning to take place, a number of actions must be undertaken. These vary depending upon the model utilized, yet there is remarkable overlap. According to Rando, there are six specific "R" processes that must be completed successfully by the individual in order for the three reorientationsin relation to the deceased, self, and external worldof healthy mourning to occur.

  1. Recognize the loss. Recognizing the loss involves acknowledging the reality of the death and understanding what caused it.
  2. React to the separation. This process involves experiencing the pain; and feeling, identifying, accepting, and giving some form of expression to all the psychological reactions to the loss. It also involves identifying and mourning the secondary losses that are brought about by the death.
  3. Recollect and reexperience the deceased and the relationship. Healthy mourning involves reviewing and remembering realistically, with reviving and reexperiencing being the associated feelings.
  4. Relinquish the old attachments to the deceased and the old assumptive world.
  5. Readjust to move adaptively into the new world without forgetting the old. This process, involves revising the assumptive world, developing a new relationship with the deceased, adopting new ways of being in the world, and forming a new identity.
  6. Reinvest. The emotional energy once invested in the relationship with the deceased eventually must be reinvested into other people, objects, pursuits, and so forth in order that emotional gratification can be received by the mourner.

Each person undertakes these processes (or not) in his or her own fashion and to his or her own depth. This is because each individual's mourning is determined by a constellation of thirty-seven sets of factors that renders the mourner's response as unique as his or her fingerprint. To be able to understand any mourner adequately, one must know the factors circumscribing the particular loss of that individual at that precise point in time. Aresponse that is perfectly appropriate for one person in one set of circumstances may be pathological for another person in those circumstances or for the same person under different circumstances. These factors cluster under three main areas: (1) psychological factors, which are subdivided into characteristics pertaining to the nature and meaning of the specific loss, the mourner, and the death; (2) social factors; and (3) physiological factors.

Duration and Course of Mourning

There is no general time frame for the length of mourning, it is dependent upon the unique constellation of factors associated with the mourner's particular bereavement. It is important to differentiate between the duration of acute grief and of mourning. The former may be very time limited; whereas the latter, technically, can go on forever in some ways. Contrary to the myth that mourning declines linearly over time, its course often fluctuates significantly. Fluctuations occur over both the short (e.g., hourly basis) and long (e.g., a period of months or more) terms. Different types of losses are associated with diverse patterns of fluctuations (e.g., sudden death, parental loss of a child).

Even long after a death has occurred and acute grief has subsided, a wide variety of circumstances can produce within the mourner subsequent temporary upsurges of grief (STUG) reactions. These are brief periods of acute grief for the loss of a loved one that are catalyzed by a precipitant that underscores the absence of the deceased or resurrects memories of the death, the loved one, or feelings about the loss. Although such reactions previously have been inappropriately construed as being pathological, they typically are a normal part of uncomplicated mourning. This is not to say that they cannot be a manifestation of some problem, only that they are not necessarily so. There are fourteen types of STUG precipitants. These are classified under the three categories of cyclic precipitants (i.e., experiences that occur repeatedly over time), linear precipitants (i.e., experiences that are one-time occurrences), and stimulus-cued precipitants (i.e., those that involve stimuli unrelated to time).

Mourning in a Changing Sociocultural Milieu

Any person's mourning is powerfully influenced by the sociocultural context within which it occurs. This affects all manner of factors circumscribing an individual's mourningfrom the type of loss that transpires to the reactions exhibited; from the meaning of that loss to the characteristics of the mourner and the types of support received or not.

Twentieth-century sociocultural and technological trends in Western society have significantly increased the prevalence of complicated mourning by causing a rise in virtually all of the seven high-risk factors predisposing to complicated mourning. The trends that have contributed most substantially to this include, among others, urbanization, technicalization, secularization, deritualization, increased social mobility, social reorganization, multiculturalism, escalating violence, wide economic disparity, medical advances, and contemporary political realities.

On the other hand, improved, and improving, bereavement research is providing more accurate information, pointing the way to primary prevention on personal and social levels and to a spectrum of interventions for bereaved persons at all degrees of risk. Socially, bereavement is more accurately understood and more visible as a legitimate topic for discussion than ever before; nevertheless, there remains significant roomand needfor improvement in these areas.

See also: Grief; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Thanatology


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Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

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The "work of mourning" is a set of mental processes, conscious and unconscious, initiated by the loss of an emotionally and instinctually cathected object. Once this work is complete, the subject is gradually able, within a period of time that cannot be shortened, to separate from the lost object.

Extreme pain, denial of reality, hallucination of the presence of the object, and awareness of the loss of the object are experienced in sequence. Eventually the mental changes occur that allow attachment to new objects to develop.

The notion of the work of mourning was introduced by Freud in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g [1915]). He seems to have been particularly concerned with death and mourning at the timethe middle of the First World War, when everyone in Europe was dealing with such lossesfor these issues are also mentioned in "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b) and "On Transience" (1916a [1915]).

Having lost his father in 1896, Freud had himself experienced grief and mourning; his father's death is mentioned in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). The long hiatus between that death and Freud's conceptualization of the work of mourning underlines the cardinal role of the passage of time in this context: Freud's own mourning preceded by far the greater part of his written work, a fact that reminds us not to confuse the psychic work of mourning with any kind of intellectual work. Talking, reflecting, or writing about a bereavement does not amount to a work of mourning. Intellectual mastery or the power of discernment are not of much help when it comes to reassembling everything associated with the lost object. Finding words to express the pain, the unimaginable distress caused by the loss, is usually an insurmountable task as much for those who seek to console as for the bereaved. On the other hand, particular words may sometimes indeed evoke the lost object or a recognizable link to that object, but the forms of such speech cannot be predicted or laid down in advance.

"What is painful may none the less be true," wrote Freud in "On Transience" (1916a [1915], p. 305). This remark, made a few months after he composed "Mourning and Melancholia," encapsulates an essential part of his thinking on mourning. Accepting the truth of the object's disappearance involves suffering. The work of mourning is not unlike the workthe "labor"of childbirth. Any birth takes time, and, like truth, is the outcome of a creative process. The truth of a loss acknowledged is no exception to this rule.

For Freud the pain of mourning was an enigma. What to the ordinary mortal seems obvious and inevitable posed an insoluble problem for the inventor of psychoanalysis. Viewing the cruelest of patent facts as a question to be answered exemplifies the heuristic approach of psychoanalysis, for which the patent is not the trueindeed, it may even hide the truth. Anyone agreeing to accompany the mourner during this depressive process will be obliged to experience it in himself, and for himself.

The main point of "Mourning and Melancholia" is to show how these two states have certain depressive traits in common. In addition to a highly contagious feeling of sadness, the two share three characteristics: loss of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, and the inhibition of all activity. The suspension of interest in the outside world is indicated by the disappearance, from one day to the next, of all attention directed toward the environment, close or distant. What was of the highest importance yesterday ceases utterly to exist today. The only other state displaying such a marked narcissistic withdrawal is sleep. In that case, being cut off from the outside world facilitates access to the intimacy of the inner world, of unconscious wishes, by way of another kind of psychic work, namely the dream-work. Could it be that, as in dreams, withdrawal into mourning makes it possible to organize the world not on the basis of external perceptions, but on the basis of a subjectivity turned completely inward? Inasmuch as sleep is a prerequisite of mental recuperation, a chance to start again relying on one's inner resources, it would seem reasonable to conclude that a kind of psychic restoration likewise occurs through mourning, with its deferment of all outside stimuli; that the loss of a cathected object requires a psychic reorganization so absorbing that it means confining all cathexis to the internal world. There are in fact few tasks more engrossing than taking stock of what will never again exist.

This withdrawal of object-libido, and the dismantling of all the bonds that have hitherto united subject and object, is bound to result in the second abovementioned common feature of mourning and melancholia, namely loss of the capacity to love. Exaggerated concentration on oneself prevents any consideration of others and blocks any expression of affection. For the time being, the cathexes available to the ego cannot be directed onto objects. Freud did not confine himself to this economic view, however, in his interpretation of the disappearance of all loving impulses toward objects. He speculated that any potential attachment to another object could imply the lost object's replacement. By taking care not to become attached to a new object, the subject was in effect defending himself against the charge of lethal intentions with respect to the lost one. But to imagine, as a defense, that one might have an impact on the outside worldbe the cause, in the event, of the object's disappearanceis itself a way of refusing reality. For the object's finite nature exists in that outside world, irrespective of the subject's wishes; it is, precisely, what is at stake in the subject's relationship with reality.

Meanwhile, cutting oneself off from external reality paradoxically implies the necessity to acknowledge it. The psychic working out of the loss on the plane of subjectivity and object relationships leads to the subject's detachment from other aspects of reality also. From this derives the third corollary of mourning, the inhibition of all activity. Inaction and indifference to outside reality do not arise exclusively, however, from absorption in the work of mourning. Such indifference indeed includes attempts to deny the reality of object-loss by denying all reality. Oscillation between the recognition of reality and its denial accounts for the contradictory and circular tendencies often observed in this context.

The experience of mourning is paradoxical. Overcoming the loss of an object means an exaggerated presence of that object in the psychic activity of the bereaved. The work of mourning may thus be defined as an excessive attention paid to an object in order to come to terms with its definitive demise.

Benjamin Jacobi

See also: Abandonment; Acting out/acting in; Acute psychoses; Allergic object relationship; Asthma; Ethics; Fatherhood; Internal object; Memory; "Mourning and Melancholia"; Negative, work of the; "On Transience"; State of being in love; Taboo; Time; Work (as a psychoanalytical notion).


Freud, Sigmund. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

. (1916a [1915]). On transience. SE, 14: 303-307.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

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mourningcharming, disarming •Fleming, lemming •Deeming, scheming, steaming •trimming • timing • heartwarming •house-warming •coaming, gloaming, homing, Wyoming •assuming •becoming, coming, forthcoming, mumming, up-and-coming •oncoming • shortcoming •homecoming • upcoming •mind-numbing •Canning, Manning, undermanning •Denning, kenning •caning, entertaining, self-sustaining, uncomplaining •greening, leaning, meaning, overweening, screening, spring-cleaning •sweetening • evening •beginning, inning, thinning, twinning, underpinning, winning •prizewinning •lining, signing, Twining, vining •lightning •aborning, awning, dawning, morning, mourning, spawning, warning •Browning, Downing, drowning •landowning • tuning • cunning •gunrunning • unquestioning •widening • stiffening • reckoning •thickening • happening • sharpening •opening • fastening • christening •unthreatening •lightening, unenlightening •self-governing •reasoning, seasoning •poisoning •discerning, Herning, turning, yearning •woodturning

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mourn·ing / ˈmôrning/ • n. the expression of deep sorrow for someone who has died, typically involving following certain conventions such as wearing black clothes: she's still in mourning after the death of her husband. ∎  black clothes worn as an expression of grief when someone dies.

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