Requiem for the topper and the silver-knobbed cane?

Charles 14 Comments



Writing in the spring 2013 issue of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management Journal, the editor, Bob Coates, writes:

What was once the abnormal is now the normal with respect to funeral ceremonies on our premises …

Less enamoured, however, may be the funeral director. Some may find the frankness of discussion, particularly over the internet, uncomfortable. Some, traditionalists, may not welcome what they regard as avant garde, wacky, eccentric or irreverent sendoffs. Perhaps there will be a dwindling demand for their opulent vehicles and, dare we say it, even their services? For them it certainly means previous attitudes and customs will be routinely challenged and that they will need to adapt to their clients’ wishes, even if this means, on occasion, leaving the cravat, top-hat and silver-knobbed cane in the wardrobe.

This set me thinking some more about Richard Rawlinson’s post about what we wear to funerals these days. Because, whatever dress code is specified, a lot of families still seem to want their undertaker to look like a proper trad hush-and-awe undertaker, however anomalous and anachronistic s/he may look amid a sea of red or pink or onesies. So it’ll be a while before the toppers and wagglers are consigned to the wardrobe. Is this how you see it?

And then there’s the music that people like to play at funerals. Very often there’ll be an Always Look On The Bright Side sort of song, especially at the end, an anarchic song which seems to raise a single digit towards… who or what? Death? Convention? The digit is identifiably irreverent and humorous. But also defiant. How much anger does it also convey?

Is it that people feel that the individuality of their funeral is more effectively and more mischievously/iconoclastically expressed in the context of a conventional funeral? A trad FD benchmarks the departure from the norm?

Is it that people feel that their FD would be reluctant to participate? We note that a FD like Linda Blakelock of Divine Departures customarily enters into the spirit, and that her clients like it.

It’s not as if undertakers who decline to wear Liverpool shirts poop the party. But perhaps they might consider parking the cod-Victorian fancy dress when they see what course a funeral is taking at the planning stage without waiting to be asked?

There may be an issue around relevance here. If so, it trumps tender and protective feelings towards the dignity-drenched, po-faced traditions of the Ancient Order of Funeral Undertakers & Upholders. If your Goth fancy-dress sets you apart, it may not be long before it casts you adrift.




  1. Charles

    ‘A trad FD benchmarks the departure from the norm?’ What a good point, Charles. Convention is a yardstick with which to judge novelty. The contrast is key.
    But how many adults make a rebellious statement through their clothing choices? Many are drawn to the newness of fashion but also to heritage. They individualise their uniform but a uniform it remains, whether for the office, the nightclub, the races or the funeral.
    They also distinguish between the more free-flow ‘civvie’ idea of appropriate dress for a given situation and the uniform representing professions, whether FD, soldier, priest, waiter.
    In ritualistic ceremonies, otherwise individual dressers often conform. African villagers might wear Nike T-shirts but also dress in tribal costume on special occasions. I know a chic woman who respectfully covers her hair with a mantilla at mass. I’m also reminded of eccentric fashionistas at funerals who go overboard in gothic black and veiled hats.
    It seems black remains a shorthand for mourning in our society. If a football player dies, the team walks out onto the pitch in their coloured strip but also dons the black armband as a tribute to one of their own.

  2. Charles

    You ought to ask Bob to write a fuller article for the blog on his long career in the funeral trade (he was Superintendent at Mortlake for nearly 30 years until his retirement a couple of years ago). He told me about the early days when services were 20 minutes (now 40 at Mortlake), there was a resident minister who would officiate at all services on a given day and there was often a long delay before the funeral could take place. He thinks the flu vaccine and central heating greatly reduced the winter spike in deaths.
    To the specific point, I think it is important that the person in charge is easily identifiable. I occasionally see funeral directors in a lounge suit and they soon become lost in the crowd. Whether it is necessary to wear full ‘Victorian’ regalia is a different matter but people do expect a certain look from those arranging an important event in their family.

  3. Charles

    A few years ago I had a conversation with an old chap in one of Somerset’s smallest villages and I asked him what he thought was the most significant change he had seen in that village over the course of his life. He pondered for a while and then said ‘the closing of the Post Office in 1963’.
    ‘And then’, he said, ‘funerals’. He remembered that as a young man the community had been involved following a death. A coffin was made in the carpenters’ shop in the estate yard and the body had been taken to the lychgate of the parish church by villagers with the aid of the village bier. Burial was in a grave dug by the sexton who doubled up as the church verger.
    In recounting that memory I am not being mawkishly sentimental; I just hope it puts a few things in perspective. Undertakers, many of whose businesses grew from places such as that estate yard, are an essential part of the equation now for the vast majority of us with a funeral to arrange. Someone is needed to bring everything together. But I would like to pose a straightforward question:
    Why, in many cases does that choreographer feel the need to take centre stage?

  4. Charles

    I ask the family members what they will be wearing, and take my cue from them. With certain kinds of funerals that we do, it is best for me and my team to have organised it so we can be very low key – invisible even; and to let it be the family’s event …………… so dark blue suit and not too sombre a tie. Last week, the tweed herringbone suit was required!
    If it’s a more formal ‘hearse and limo’ funeral, it’s great to walk the coffin away from the house. And yes, some families would like black gear and a top hat in hand for this.
    What’s important is to respond to the family’s view, and ‘hold’ the event and the participants with clarity; this does not need lashings of dignity and bling, nor – as our esteemed editor has said – ‘biggin’ up the gloomface’.

  5. Charles

    Totally agree with James. I also feel, Charles, that you may be off base with why the top hat and cane is still so popular. I don’t think it has much to do with rebellion or even, always, inertia. It does totally depend on what the family wants but I had visitors this week and we were discussing just this point. We were agreed that giving people a choice is more important than what they choose…but I did say that personally (purely personally, you understand,) I like the Victorian look. As long as it is done properly and carried well. I did have the chance to try to put into words exactly why I feel like this and it surprised even me…for me it had very little to do with tradition and a lot to do with acknowledging the importance of death and grief and with bearing witness. The idea of bearing witness is, I think, overlooked in funerals. At the end of the day, appropriate dress has a lot to do with the perceived purpose of a particular funeral. So much, in the end, comes down to that.

    I haven’t forgotten that, by the way. For the moment, OCR has got in the way, but another post will be forthcoming soon!

  6. Charles

    Ah, bearing witness — I like that, Jenny. Ru has written somewhere about the importance of this, contrasting it with the dutiful mouthpiece role adopted by secular celebrants. I have to confess that I sympathise with your pov. And to tie this discussion in with the discussion about what people wear to funerals, I think the trad kit does make an important statement that that an event of great magnitude has occurred: someone has died, these people care, together we are acting out a drama whose last act will be the disposal of the corpse.

    The important thing is that the wearer of the topper sidelines ego and inhabits the role. This is not a show-off opportunity. Too many undertakers communicate self-consciousness or self-regard, thereby missing the point.

  7. Charles

    For me it has to be Victorian, I love the ceremony, dignity and history of it all. If anyone wants to see this personified, visit the AW Lymn branch in Mansfield and ask to see David Combe, he is the model upon which all FD’s should base themselves in my opinion, not just in dress but also in his personality.
    Lounge suits? Sorry, lacking “respect”. Fancy dress – okay if the family want it, but then I suspect they would not want the gravitas that exists when the Lymn crew turn up if fancy dress is their thing.
    Horses for courses I suppose.

  8. Charles

    But Lol, the history is rooted in the Protestant death ethic and the brief phenomenon of the ostentatiously lugubrious Victorian funeral. Hardly the spirit of our secular, determinedly life-celebratory age?

    1. Charles

      Do remember, though, Charles, that all traditions are rooted somewhere, and are not less valuable for that as long as they are regularly re-examined for relevance and usefulness! I also feel that the term ‘life celebration’ is so misused. The ideas of celebration and bearing witness are not so far apart. ‘Celebration’ and ‘party’ are not synonymous! Perhaps ‘Life honouring’ would get us further as a term?

  9. Charles
    Funeral Home Louisville Guy

    I would lean toward the traditional until either asked by the family to participate in something unusual (which I am perfectly willing to do within reason) or until I feel comfortable enough to ask if they would like me to add to their ceremony. Of course, I do have my limits. I do not see myself dressing up like a vampire.

  10. Charles

    I must say I didn’t expect Victorian-inspired traditions to be readily upheld by quite so many here. But I guess that, even if death was far more visible then, bereavement transcends eras, and we still need visual aids to help express our feelings, pay our respects. It seems props such as modest, dark clothes and white flowers remain relevant, fit for purpose.
    Jenny makes a good point that the ‘celebration of life’ term can be misleading when it can mean honouring a life in a more sombre manner. While people are undoubtedly far more free too choose conduct that breaks with convention, perhaps more than I imagined are of the ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t mend it’ school of thought.
    We hear much about cross-cultural funerals today, again sometimes implying codes of conduct are let go in order to offer broad homogenised appeal. Are the troops rallied to unify under one banner, or is the reality more that people uphold their own customs, a Hindu in white, a small-c conservative in black, a progressive using colour for self-expression?
    I’m sure it’s still considered good form to take the lead from leading family members, but social diversification must make this harder than it was in yesteryear when more of us were bonded by the same social norms.

  11. Charles

    I know I’ve arrived when Charles posts on his blog just to wind me up 🙂 He forgets that we still have to meet for coffee…….
    For myself, I almost trained for the Church, so any Protestant leanings I have towards dress and traditions are to be expected 🙂

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