Funeral etiquette

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”, or 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.

Why black?

Queen Victoria in old age

Queen Victoria in old age

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. They bought special 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 that 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. Young children would have been frightened by this, but they weren’t generally encouraged to go to funerals.

Hawaiian shirt, as worn at a funeral

Modern funerals

Most people attend funerals wearing smart but not too formal clothes that don’t attract a lot of attention, but it all depends on who the funeral is for. A biker’s funeral, for example, will usually be attended by lots of people wearing black motorcycle gear. 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.

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. As she left she extended a hand, which was clad in fingerless lace gloves, and smiled graciously. I resisted the temptation to curtsey.

The rules

There are none. I don’t think it matters what you wear for a funeral, as long as you behave in a dignified and respectful manner. If you don’t, it can be distracting and upsetting for the chief mourners. Fortunately, most people, even if they’ve never been to a funeral before, instinctively know what is right.

Margaret Nelson