Mourning Observances 

Down through the centuries of human history, there have been many customs related to death and mourning, partly owing to religious belief and partly because of the prevalence of superstition. There is little doubt that much of the concern for the departed was, and still is, related to the sheer mystery of life and death. A few of the customs connected with grief and mourning are still to be seen in both civilian and military life today, and one of these is the use of black fabric as a symbol of mourning.

The sombreness of black has long been linked with subdued sound as, for example, in the use of black shrouds to muffle the drums of the funeral procession, or the muffling of oars when the bier is being moved by barge.

An example of the muffling of drums more than two centuries ago is to be seen in an order relating to the death of Princess Elizabeth in England in 1759: "The Baize to cover the drums and the Crapes for the Officers' Sashes will be delivered out of the Great Wardrobe in Scotland Yard."Footnote 1

Today, the drum is muffled by encasing it in a piece of black fabric having a draw-string, thus damping the sound. Muffled oars, in the funeral context, are seldom seen now, but when this kind of ceremonial procession is carried out, as in the case of some famous seaman, black canvas or matting is wrapped round the loom of the oars. This muffles the creaking sound of oars against thole-pins or rowlocks in precisely the same way as a sailor's jersey did when cutting out a ship from under an enemy shore battery, or, nowadays, when rowing guard in harbour on a dark night.

Though the wearing of the black crepe armband has largely disappeared from civilian life, this old custom of indicating grief and bereavement, or simply as a mark of respect, is still very much alive in the military. By regulation, a mourning band is worn on the left arm when court mourning or Service mourning is directed. It may also be worn in the event of personal bereavement.Footnote 2 This custom goes back a long way.

In 1767, King George III decreed, upon the death of the Duke of York and Albany, "Officers of the Army should not wear any other Mourning on the present melancholy occasion than a black Crape round their Left Arms, with their Uniforms.Footnote 3

A typical reaction of a ship's company losing their highly respected captain occurred in HMS Berwick, seventy-four guns, near the close of the eighteenth century: " ... they divided their black silk handkerchiefs, and wore one part round their hats and the other round their arms ... ; and they walked through the cabin in ranks and bowed to the coffin while passing, and most of them in tears ... "Footnote 4

Late in 1805, after Trafalgar, a seaman of HMS Victory wrote: "There is three hundred of us Pickt out to go to Lord Nelson [sic] Funeral. We are to wear blue Jackets white Trowsers and black scarf round our arms and hats . . .. "Footnote 5

Customs relating to death and mourning remind us of the variety of symbolism practised and understood by our ancestors. One such theme appealed to the superstitious, the idea that at certain times, particularly during periods of grief, men's hearts become defenceless against evil. In many ancient churches, special doors were left open so that when the Host was brought in the front door, the devil was encouraged to scuttle out the back. Some scholars see this idea in the firing of the three volleys over the grave - to frighten the ever encroaching devils away.Footnote 6 Fortescue has traced this custom of prayers said over the departed and the three volleys fired in the name of the Holy Trinity back to the companies of German mercenaries of the sixteenth century.Footnote 7

Today, of course, the three volleys are simply a farewell salute to one's comrade-in-arms.

Some idea of the antiquity of firing over the grave may be gathered from an account of the burial of Sir Peter Carewe in 1575 in the days of the first Elizabeth:

... the drummes strake upe, and theirwith all the soldyers dyschardged ther peeces 4 or fyve tymes together, wherewith the Churche was soe full of smoke that one coulde scarse discirne another. Lastlye, a nomber of chambers, wch were in the church yearde, and all the greate ordynaunces in the towne, and yn the shippes in the ryver, and at the keye, were also dischardged.Footnote 8

Regrettably, this ancient military rite recently fell victim to the levelling effect of the unification of the Forces (1968), inasmuch as the Royal Canadian Air Force had dropped this bit of ceremonial back in 1960.Footnote 9 However, at time of writing, the decision has been taken to reinstate the use of funeral firing parties.

Another recurring theme of mourning is slovenliness, a feeling of not caring, brought about by a sense of distress and "a sinking of the heart," perhaps best conveyed in the French je suis désolé. Today, when some nationally recognized figure dies, the national flag atop the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill is half-masted as a mark of respect and national mourning. This custom comes from the sea practice of half-masting the ensign. But, as every sailor knows, to have a halyard not hoisted close-up is a mark of sloppy seamanship,Footnote 10 a sin almost as reprehensible as leaving loose rope-ends trailing over the side. The custom of half-masting the colours is said to date from the sixteenth century .Footnote 11

There is an interesting reference to half-masting the flag in the mid-eighteenth century. In November 1759, HMS Royal William brought the body of Wolfe from Quebec to Portsmouth and, upon anchoring, two guns were fired to signal the removal of his remains. "At nine the body was landed and put into a hearse, attended by a mourning coach, and proceeded through the garrison. The colours on the forts struck half flag-staff, the bells muffled, rung in solemn concert with the march, minute guns were fired. ... "Footnote 12

This particular example of mourning custom related to slovenly seamanship is not unlike the one practised in the days of sail. In harbour, with all sail off the ship, it was normal practice, indeed mandatory, that all the yards must be properly squared off, the yards being the spars suspended from the masts and on which the sails are set. They must be at right angles to the masts and at right angles to the fore-and-aft line of the ship. No self-respecting seaman would have it otherwise. Yet the mark of a ship in mourning was to "scandalize" her yards, that is, yards topped to starboard and to port, said to be "set aslant" or yards "a-cock-bill," in the most unseamanlike fashion.Footnote 133

This same theme of neglect, albeit a studied neglect, may be seen in the idea of things being in reverse to what they should be. To visit Langemarck in Belgium is to see, in a setting of the traditional cypress and crimson roses, a  massive, brooding figure in stone, a steel-helmeted Canadian soldier of the Great War, his head bowed in sorrow, his hands resting "on arms reversed" - the St. Julien Memorial. Or take the funeral of General Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian corps in the Great War, who died in Montreal in 1933. In the cortege were two cavalry detachments, three university contingents and four infantry regiments, "all with arms reversed." "Immediately behind the gun-carriage is the general's charger, with boots reversed in the stirrups, and the empty sword-scabbard hanging from an empty saddle."Footnote 14

Consider the last respects paid in 1929 to Sir William Otter, veteran of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada at Ridgeway (1866), commander of the Battleford Column in the North-west Rebellion (1885), and acclaimed Canada's first native-born general. The casket was borne on a gun carriage, "the led riderless horse with the jackboots reversed in the stirrups ... ; the firing party with arms reversed; the detachments from every unit in the city; and, over all, the slow measured tread to the " Dead March from Saul" played with muffled drums."Footnote 15

Such scenes had changed little from a ceremony conducted on the western prairie nearly a century ago. The officer commanding the Midland Battalion in the North-west campaign, a Lieutenant-Colonel Archer Williams, succumbed on board the steamer Northwest, and the funeral service was held at Battleford, truly an impressive sight:

The plain board coffin, wrapped in the folds of the old flag under whose shadow he had fought so honorably and well was lifted on a gun carriage, behind which a soldier led his riderless horse. His own fine regiment, now going home without a leader, followed as chief mourners, with arms reversed, and the cortege numbered fully fifteen hundred armed men. Brass bands were there with muffled drums, and the wild lonely upland echoed the wail of the "Dead March in Saul," as slowly and sadly we conducted the gallant dead to the once beleaguered fort ....Footnote 16

Fortescue states that the drill of "resting on arms reversed" dates from the funeral of the Duke of Marlborough who died in 1722.Footnote 17 However, the idea of neglect of arms as a mourning observance comes down from a much earlier time, as the following account confirms. Sir Philip Sidney died at Arnhem in 1586, just two years before the famous fight with the Spanish Armada. His body was embalmed and preparations were made for moving the remains to England:

... it was conveyed to the water's edge, followed by twelve hundred of the English soldiers, walking three abreast and trailing their swords and muskets in the dust .... As they marched, solemn music was performed. Rounds of small shot were thrice fired by all the men present, and from the great ordnance on the walls, two volleys were discharged as the corpse was taken from the shore.

Later, in London, in the state funeral ,

A hundred and twenty unarmed citizens were in attendance, and about 300 citizens trained for war, all holding their weapons reversed ... , the body was interred under the Lady Chapel [in old St. Paul's] ... , and a double volley of shot from the churchyard informed the world outside that Sir Philip Sidney had been buried.Footnote 18

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To this day, at regimental dinners of le 12e Régiment Blindé du Canada, at Trois Rivières, a special table is always set in front of the head table, and the place settings of crystal, china and cutlery are laid in reverse. In this way, the regiment honours its dead.Footnote 19

When a sailor, soldier or airman dies, the coffin, during the funeral service, is covered or draped with the national flag or the Canadian Forces ensign, in token that he died in his country's service. This very old custom is particularly appropriate for a burial at sea. In the absence of a casket, the deceased is sewn into a canvas hammock with weights at his feet to facilitate rapid sinking. The draped ensign helps to obscure the form of the corpse, for the flag is held fast to the ship's rail when the body is reverently slipped from beneath the ensign over the side, "plunging with a splash to its last resting place 'full many a fathom deep."Footnote 20

Finally, in military customs related to funerals, there is the recurring theme of the Light after the Darkness, choose life, not death. Remember the past, but march with spirit and faith into the future, for tomorrow is a new day. This ancient theme is seen in the traditional opening words of the funeral service: "I am the resurrection and the life .. .. "

This idea is seen also in the movements of the funeral escort and the accompanying band music. In the approach to the graveyard all is governed by the solemnity and measured pace of the traditional funeral march, "The Slow March from Saul."Footnote 21 But once the burial service is over, the escort is clear of the graveyard, and the shrouds have been removed from the drums, the funeral party, at a sharp word of command, breaks into the quick-march and the band strikes up a regimental march, or in the case of the navy, the stirring notes of "Heart of Oak," beginning "Come, cheer up, my lads . .. . "Footnote 22

This dramatic switch from the slow to the quick is of ancient origin. In 1675, a boatswain of HMS Assistance was buried ashore "like a souldyer."The well known diarist, the Reverend Henry Teonge, recorded on this occasion: "and as soone as wee were out of the church yard the trumpetts sounded merry levitts [musical strain or call to rouse soldiers in the morning] all the way."Footnote 23

First post and last post were, until recent years, the last two trumpet or bugle calls to be heard in a military camp or barracks at the close of the day. They had to do with the posting of guards or sentries, the setting of the watch for the night. Today, last post is heard almost exclusively in the funeral service and in Remembrance Day observances from coast to coast. It is not difficult to see the symbolism involved. One does not soon forget the thoughtful impression made on the mind by the pause near the end of last post, followed by the great welling up of that final high E and its eventual drifting away on the night air. In the funeral service, last post is followed by reveille, which is consistent with the ageless theme of the new day; life must go on; there is duty to be done.

Today, in the Canadian Forces, there is a regulation which has a bearing on uniform dress early in the month of November. It reads in part: "The Remembrance Day Poppy ... shall be worn ... on the left side of the headdress ... "Footnote 24 Although associated with the tragedy of war by generations of Europeans, the wearing of the poppy in Canada dates from the years closely following the Armistice of 1918.

Four sailors and a coffin on the deck of the ship.
One of HMC ships preparing to leave harbour for a burial at sea, October, 1966. (Note the rifles of the sentries are in the reverse position and the ship's ensign is at half-staff.)

There is much conjecture about how this scarlet emblem came originally to be associated with the remembrance of war dead. Certainly in the Low Countries of Europe, which have known the clash of arms for countless centuries, the poppy grows in great profusion in the grain fields, and is considered a weed.

However, there is no doubt about how the red poppy became for Canadians, indeed for the whole allied cause, the symbol for sacrifice, for remembrance, and for the prayerful hope that man would somehow, someday, eliminate the horror that is war. It was fifteen lines of verse written in a dug-out in the trenches not far from battle-torn Ypres in Belgium, in 1915. "In Flanders Fields" was the quiet, thoughtful outpouring of the heart of a courageous, compassionate medical officer of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, of Guelph, Ontario. These are the words, so familiar to so many for nearly sixty years:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCraeFootnote 25

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