When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Funeral etiquette

This is an article I posted on the Suffolk Humanists' site 2 years and 42 weeks ago. If you Google 'funeral etiquette' it comes top of the list. It continually comes top of the list of most popular content on our site. It's been visited over 3000 times. I wonder if those who find it consider it useful? It won't tell them what to wear or do. It won't tell them who enters the chapel, church or cemetery first. There are no rules about such things. Still, it might make a few people consider that 'etiquette' at funerals is a bit of a waste of time.
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Occasionally I’m asked about appropriate dress for funerals. People who’ve never been to a funeral before, let alone had to arrange one, might worry about ‘doing the right thing’ – the etiquette of mourning. They may be reassured to know that few wear black to funerals any more. Formal clothing, usually in subdued colours, is the usual choice, but you can wear more or less anything, apart from obviously inappropriate beachwear. The point is to show respect by not drawing attention to yourself – this especially applies to the celebrant.

Why black?
Black mourning dress became popular during Queen Victoria’s reign. After Prince Albert died she never wore anything else, and the fashion persisted until the late 20th century. Most people don’t know why they wear black, if they do, or why they should. It began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when death rituals demonstrated worth and social status. The poor could not afford to spend a lot of money on funerals, but the middle and upper classes could and did, by spending money on clothing, coaches, coffins and all the accessories that an increasing number of commercial funeral directors were only too keen to sell them. This display was designed to show they were respectable people. The poor did their best to imitate them, and show that they too were respectable, even if the best they could do was borrow or improvise mourning dress. When I was a child, many people still covered mirrors, closed curtains and observed other strange customs on the death of a relative. It all contributed to a gloomy, morbid feeling, which was frightening for children – who were, in any case, not generally encouraged to attend a funeral.

Modern funerals
A retired funeral director I know feels that things have gone downhill since those days. He says that no one shows respect any more. If a hearse passed you in the street, men used to take off their hats and bow their heads, he says, and male mourners wore black armbands. He doesn’t think the more relaxed approach is an improvement.
Things are changing, but some still use a funeral as an opportunity to display their affluence and respectability. I’ve conducted funerals where the widow and her daughters wore the largest, most ostentatious hats, more suitable for a day at Ascot races. Another not only wore a large black hat, but seemed to be wearing most of her jewellery too. The people in the row behind her were hidden from me.
I don’t know what it is about Essex, but I’ve done funerals there for people who originated in London and had settled in areas like Clacton, where almost everyone wore black, many of the men wore shades, and most of the women wore flashy gold jewellery, with Dallas-style hairdos. When they shook hands, the men had horny manual labourer’s hands and the women had long painted nails. It was like meeting the Mafia.
One of the most striking funeral outfits I’ve seen was at the funeral for a man in his thirties who died of a drugs overdose. Many of the mourners were crusty new age hippies. One was a woman who was about six foot six tall, with a veiled bowler hat over thick dark hair cut pudding basin style in a short bob. She wore an old hacking jacket that had been patched and embroidered over several brightly coloured layers, and a long full purple tulle skirt over black leggings, striped socks, and black DMs. Her make-up was like something out of a circus. As she left she extended a hand, which was clad in fingerless lace gloves, and smiled graciously. I resisted the temptation to curtsey.
When a young Goth woman died, almost everyone at the funeral, including me, wore black and purple – her favourite colours. When a keen camper died, his friends all wore bright Hawaiian short-sleeved shirts in his honour. Sometimes terminally ill people have instructed their family and friends not to wear black but bright colours, and they have.

The rules
I don’t think it matters what you wear for a funeral, as long as you behave in a dignified and respectful manner. Strangely, the most rude and disrespectful people I’ve come across have been elderly women who’ve clearly disapproved of the secular ceremony, and talked in carrying whispers throughout, even during the pause for reflection, or very deaf people who’ve ignored the available loop system and sat at the back, then demanded to know what I’ve said from their neighbour every few minutes. I have, so far, resisted the urge to tell them to shut up.


CW said...

For my gran's recent funeral we all wore black or dark colours, but that was because she'd specifically requested it. She on the other hand was dressed all in white, again on her express wishes.

Flash said...

Did she say why?

White is worn at funerals in North Africa, I believe, and in the East.

Liz said...

My assistant's mother died two weeks ago and it is the funeral this week. She expressed a wish to be buried with her late husband, which involves a 5 hour trip from the church in Bournemouth to Shropshire and a second ceremony at the graveside the following day, at considerable expense.

His concerns over the cost of these arrangements have not been helped by his wife's insistence that she have a new outfit for the funeral.

Flash said...

Oh dear Liz. Poor man. I imagine that the women in his life have been used to getting what they want, regardless, while someone else pays the bill.

I wonder why she thinks it necessary to have a new outfit? Who's going to notice? The coffin will be the centre of attention.