The telephone rings early in the morning. It is your sister informing you that great Aunt Hortense has died. You like Aunt Hortense. She mixed you your first martini when you were sixteen and told you stories of dancing to dawn to the sounds of the Big Band orchestras.After you put down the receiver, you wonder why do I do now? What do I say? And yes, what do I wear? A few generations ago these questions would not have to be asked. People conformed to established rituals surrounding death and grief without questioning them. There were things to do and one simply got on with doing them. The Victorians, for example, rarely if ever talked about sex in polite company, even within the circle of those of their same gender. However, they talked about death incessantly and developed rigid customs concerning mourning. If one’s spouse or parent died, one wore black for a full year and then for six months, “half mourning” which meant gray for men and mauve for women. These traditions carried on well into the twentieth century and for some cultures remain in place today. Presently, there are few carved in stone rituals and people have questions about the etiquette surrounding death.
Letter of Condolence
The very first thing that one must do when a death occurs is acknowledge it. If you learn of the death of someone whom you knew or if you discover that a relative or close friend of a co-worker or friend has died, you first sit down at your desk, take out paper and an envelope and write a letter of condolence. This is important especially if you are not planning to attend a funeral service or if there is no funeral service. Even if you attend a service, a letter is a nice, but not obligatory, thing to do. I said you write a letter of condolence. You do not send an email or post a “thinking of your family and you” entry on a funeral home’s web site. Death requires more from you. A handwritten letter is where one begins. It need not be long or witty, but a sincere message with a personal touch is best. If you did not know the person that well you can simply say something along the lines of, “I was deeply sorry to learn of the death of your aunt. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy. Your family and you are in my thoughts and prayers.” Just make sure to be genuine. If you are not religious, drop the prayers. These letters will serve as tangible reminders for the grieving that people care for them or cared for the person they are mourning.
You may want to acknowledge the death of someone in a more tangible manner than just a letter. In years gone by one sent flowers to the funeral home or a mourner’s house. The purpose of the flowers was quite practical. It offsets the odor of death and the not-too-perfected embalming process. However, these days many people regard an overabundance of flowers as an excessive waste of money. Instead in the death notice or at the funeral home the names of one or two favorite charities of the deceased are noted in case one would prefer to make a memorial donation rather than send a spray of flowers. The choice is up to you if you want to make a charitable donation or not and it is up to you ultimately to which charity you would like to donate. The charity will inform the deceased family of the donation, or the funeral home will prepare a list of donors names and addresses. The amount of the gift is never mentioned.
Funeral or Memorial Service?
People ask what is the difference between a “funeral” and a “memorial service.” The answer really lies in whether the deceased is there in body or just in memory. If there is a coffin and a burial following, it is a funeral service. If burial has taken place or the body cremated (with or without an urn present), then it is a memorial service. On occasion, the family may opt for a private funeral service and burial and a public memorial service at a later time. Death notices in newspapers or online at funeral homes will indicate to you what type of service you are attending and where the service will be held.
The traditional funeral service is slowly becoming extinct. It is often replaced with a “celebration of a person’s life.” This is all part and parcel of our death-denying culture. As Ecclesiastes (it’s in the Bible) says, “there is a time to dance and a time to mourn.” A memorial service is not a time to dance. There may be smiles and slight laughs at a funeral as we remember the uniqueness of the person we are gathered to remember, but a Dean Martin-style roast at funeral is not.
If you do attend a “celebration” at a country club where liquor is served, go easy on it. This would be a time for a dignified response to a person’s life even if he or she was the life of the party. You dress and behave in exactly the same way you would at a traditional funeral. You express your sympathy to the family; you listen to the stories told about your late friend or relative, and then you depart.
We cannot be assured any longer that the deceased was involved in any organized religion. If a minister is asked to officiate at the service, he or she is in charge and will ask (or should ask) the deceased loved ones for remembrances of the one who has died. Certain rites of the Church or other religious faith will be observed. It is quite alright to ask before the service of the funeral director or officiating clergy what to do or expect during the service. Most people are quite open to discussing their religious traditions. Normally, however, all one has to do is to show up, express one’s sympathy to the family, sit down, and observe. Your cell phone ringer is off, and the device is stowed during the service.
If you are attending a Jewish funeral service, it usually takes place in a Synagogue or funeral home one day after the death, but never happens on the Saturday Sabbath. Men are required to wear a head covering known as a kippah or yarmulke. If you do not own one, one will be provided for you as you enter the sanctuary. Married women are asked to wear headscarves at an Orthodox service. Gentlemen are encouraged to wear dark suits and ties. The service is usually about the same duration as a Christian funeral. If you are able, you will be asked to travel to the graveside for the burial. The casket is lowered and, if you desire, you may join others in the act shoveling soil on the casket. Do not feel obliged to do so. Following the internment, most people will adjourn to a family member’s home and begin a seven-day observation called Shiva. If you missed the funeral service, you might visit the family during this time. Never send flowers to a Jewish funeral. Usually, one makes a donation to charity or plants a tree in Israel through the Jewish National Fund.
Like Jews, Muslims do not delay in having a funeral service. The funeral service will take place in the Mosque. You will be required to remove your shoes and deposit them in the appropriate location. Therefore make sure your socks are impeccably clean. Women must wear scarves on their heads. Suits are always dark. Most Muslim men will not be wearing neckties, but if you want to wear a tie, you may. Muslims never embalm and burial occurs within twenty-four hours of death. A service often occurs after burial.
If you attend a Buddhist funeral, you should wear conservative attire. You will notice that the mourners are wearing white, the traditional mourning color. Do not wear red which is the color for joy and happiness. It is mandatory that you remove your shoes at a Buddhist funeral as at a Muslim one.
At many funerals today, a close family member or friend is asked to deliver a eulogy. A eulogy is a heart-felt tribute to the one we are there to remember. It is not an opportunity to get one last word in about the deceased. It is not a comedy act. It also is not all about the speaker. It is about the way the person who died and the way she or he impacted upon people’s lives. If you are delivering a eulogy, this is your chance to speak about someone in a very dignified manner.
What to Wear to a Funeral
We all have many suits in our closet. Well, maybe not. However, we should have one dark suit on hand for occasions such as a funeral. A black suit is your number one choice but a navy suit, or a charcoal gray suit and if you don’t have anything else, even a midnight-blue pin stripe are all acceptable. In the heat of summer, I think it is also correct to wear, unless one is an immediate family member of the deceased, a tan summer suit. Your shoes should be black whether they be wing tips or captoes. Opt for solid white shirts with French cuffs because it suits the formality of the event. One’s tie should be conservative. Solid black ties are quite appropriate for someone who has lost an immediate family member. If you are just attending a service, gray or blue stripped tie will work well. You never show up to a funeral home or Church service wearing jeans, a golf shirt, a baseball cap, or sneakers. Even if the men sitting next to you are thusly attired, you know that you know better and are more respectful than they are. (Besides dear Aunt Hortense liked a man in a suit).
Funerals are one of the reasons why every man must own one good dark colored suit. You will be able to wear it on other occasions as well. With the right tie, it is perfect for weddings or job interviews. For very formal funerals, formal morning dress may be required. If you don’t own a morning coat, a stroller suit with a black vest would also be appropriate.
Thank you Notes
If you are in the position of having lost someone, you know how difficult those first few weeks are. Nevertheless, the words and actions of people who have expressed their sympathy to you must be acknowledged. As exhausted as you may be in the weeks that follow a funeral, you need to be spending your time writing letters of thanks to those who wrote you personal letters, sent flowers, or made memorial donations. This is one of the final kind things you can do for your loved one, acknowledging your gratitude to people who knew him or her and responded with a memorial. It is also about telling people that you appreciate their kindness during this trying time. The task of writing thank you letters can be divided up among family members who can write a personal note. In case you don’t know who will be writing, a simple, “on behalf of Hortense’s family, I thank you for your kind donation to St. Philip’s Church” or whatever charity will do.
If you received a letter of condolence, one simply writes something like, “Thank you for your words of sympathy. I gathered strength and encouragement from them.” Pre-printed sympathy cards to which a person just affixes his signature need not be answered, but a personal letter does.
Gone are the days when a man would wear a black arm band for a six months after losing a parent, spouse or sibling. (Those arm bands though did serve a purpose. They said to the world, “be gentle; this man is grieving”. However, in the months that follow a loss, one should never be in a hurry “to get back to normal”. The past normal no longer exists. A new normal without a loved one will be found.
There is an etiquette surrounding death and grief. To those who say that we do not need to do these things ‘nowadays’, the reply should be has death stopped happening and do we no longer mourn? The traditional rites, choice of clothing, and condolences are ways of showing respect to the person who died and to remind us that he or she had a life worth remembering. They also are our ways of offering support to those who miss them the most. Of course, mourning and grief are very personal matters. In any case, Aunt Hortense would approve.
Insert Picture of Funeral Cortege.
Do you know more about funeral etiquette in other cultures? Please let us know in the comments.