What to wear for a funeral

Guest post by Wendy Coulton

Choosing what to wear when conducting a funeral is an important aspect as a professional and for the bereaved I am serving.

Advice which stuck with me when I was trained as a funeral celebrant was that I am not mourning and therefore it is not a requirement for me to wear black.

The bereaved decide the dress code

First and foremost I find out from the bereaved client what the dress code is for the funeral when we are planning it together. Some prefer the traditional black mourning attire so that will influence my wardrobe choice for that funeral – a dark purple, charcoal grey or dark blue. But if the family make it clear everyone is to wear black then I will respect their wishes.

Sometimes a specific colour is chosen as an accent colour for its personal relevance to the person who has died or to reflect the tone of the funeral focussing with love and thanks on the life that was lived and how that person enriched the lives of those who knew them. Increasingly funeral directors wear different colour ties to acknowledge the colour preference of the bereaved. I have a growing collection of scarves as a more cost effective way of introducing a chosen colour to the dress code.

I generally tend to wear bright jackets but for the more conservative clients I may tone it down. For example for the funeral of an elderly traditional lady I favour a pastel pink with grey.

Personal touches

My clients always appreciate the simple extra touches which reflect the careful thought given to the individuality of their funeral ceremony.  For example I wore an understated blue thistle button hole on my jacket at the funeral for a man who was very proud of his Scottish heritage. His family were really appreciative of my nod to his patriotism.

The city football club colour is green so I invested in a dress in the same shade which I wear when the deceased was a Plymouth Argyle supporter.

Standing out from the crowd

From a practical point of view it can help the next of kin find me before we go into the chapel, particularly if there is a high attendance and everyone is wearing similar clothes. 

As a ‘neutral’ person without a uniform or universally recognised dress code like the clergy it is important that I am recognised easily as the person who is responsible for conducting the funeral ceremony.

My brand

I want to come across as warm, approachable, professional and kind. What I wear reflects this. I do not want to come across as efficient, formal and detached. Often I wear a Dragonfly brooch or necklace by way of a discreet image which may stay in the sub conscious of people attending the funeral so they relate that to my business name Dragonfly Funerals.

Requiem for the topper and the silver-knobbed cane?

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.



Black or coloured?

 Posted by Richard Rawlinson

With the trend for approaching funerals as celebrations of life, I gather it’s become more fashionable to wear bright colours that challenge the convention of wearing black for mourning.

Is this the experience of undertakers and celebrants here? If so, are people dressing down in line with the general trend for more casual attire, or are they continuing to dress up for funerals, only without sticking to black?

How popular is it for a specific colour to be requested because it’s the favourite of the deceased person: a Liverpool supporter being honoured, for example, by guests wearing red?

Do many undertakers now ditch the black, too? And how do celebrants dress to either blend in or set themselves apart from the congregation/audience?

I’d welcome your insights into the contemporary scene, not attending many funerals myself, and those I do go to tending towards traditional black.

There’s no right or wrong here but I’ll nail my colours to the mast by saying I like to witness a sea of monochrome mourners, reminiscent of the throng at a school assembly. There’s something unifying and democratising about a uniform on certain occasions. Bonded by a common thread, black says, ‘we’re all in it together’, no one standing out as either above or below another.

Black is also practical, not just because it conceals grimy marks, but because most of us possess a dark suit and white shirt so we don’t need to rush out to buy something new. Then there’s the claim I recently read online that bright colours make people cry! I quote: ‘Smiles are terrible for depressed people, it’s like the person is happy about our pain if they wear bright colours. Basically because misery loves company’.

Black has symbolised many things over the years, from evil to virtue, wealth to poverty, puritanical unworldliness to the height of fashion. In Roman times, the Emperor wore purple, soldiers wore red, priests wore white and artisans wore black, albeit primitively dyed meaning clothes soon faded to murky grey. Black togas were, however, worn for funerals.

In the Middle Ages, black was associated with the devil, although it was also worn by Benedictine monks as a sign of humility and penitence. Aristocrats showed their wealth through bright colours and, in some parts of Europe, commoners were prohibited from wearing these colours denoting noble rank. Wealthy merchants in northern Italy responded by choosing black robes in the most expensive cloths.

Black became emblematic of Protestantism, and a reaction against the opulence of Catholic church interiors, and the red worn by the Pope and Cardinals. Artists took sides, too, with Protestant Rembrandt using a sober palette of blacks and browns, and Catholic Rubens favouring rich brights. At the same time, all churches in the 17th century became superstitious about witchcraft, persecuting unfortunate women who kept a black cat.

With the emergence of the middle classes in the 18th and 19th centuries, a dark, sober wardrobe became fashionable across society in Europe, not just for mourning. It was the colour of the French Revolution and of the Industrial Revolution, fuelled by coal and oil. It was the colour favoured by romantic poets such as Shelley, usually portrayed in black jacket teamed with an open white shirt.

In the 20th century, black was the colour of fascism, but also Parisian intellectuals and New York beatniks. Chanel pioneered the Little Black Dress, Marlon Brando was the pinnacle of cool in his biker leathers in The Wild One and, later, punks and goths saw black as part of their rebellious subculture.

And here we are today. Black tie parties are now few and far between, and black is not necessarily expected at funerals.


Footnote: You can stop reading here but, while on the subject of sartorial traditions, I’ve been vexed of late about why we always associate the fez with the smoking jacket. Why do we see Victorian gents wearing this cap and jacket ensemble when relaxing at home, when usual etiquette is for men to uncover their heads indoors?

As with so much menswear history, the answers are practical first, aesthetic second. In the days before central heating, the cap kept one warm when indulging in a sedentary activity such as reading in a library chair, cigar in hand. As this is a private domestic activity the no-headwear-indoors rule doesn’t apply.  

The small size and softness of the fez/smoking cap is also more comfortable than a more formal head-warmer such as hard topper or bowler, just as a velvet/silk-quilted smoking jacket/robe is more comfortable than a tailored morning coat designed to be worn out and about during the day.

Finally, the smoking cap and jacket protected the hair and regular clothing from the smell of smoke.

As well as being lightweight and protective against draughts and odour, the classic fez style of Ottoman origin—cone-shaped red felt with a black tassel—became popular for aesthetic reasons, too, conjuring up a backstory of a British gent who was well-travelled and worldly. The style was adapted as a velvet cap, decorated with gold embroidery, giving fiancés and wives something to work on as a personalised, home-made present for the man in their life.

It would have been as bad form to wear this intimate, domestic cap at one’s club as it would be to walk out in a nightgown. Wearing a hat in a public interior is a criticism of the host’s temperature control, and if you’re worried about smoke in your hair in a communal smoking room, you should perhaps stay away.

Undertaker chic

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Autumn/winter 2012/13 fashions are in the stores and Downton Abbey is back on TV for another series. Black is often a fashion favourite for the cooler seasons, but when black is coupled with Dowtonesque, Edwardian styling, the trend takes on a distinctly funereal look.

The mood continues into interiors trends with cool greys replacing warm taupes as the colour du jour. A reflection of the collective psyche in these difficult economic times? Colour psychologist Karen Haller says: ‘If we are anxious or nervous we may also turn to grey to feel calm, which is quite an extreme way to do it as it can be so draining without any support’. 

Taboo or not taboo?

Posted by Michael Jarvis, onetime Manager of the Natural Death Centre

For very many people in the UK ‘death’ is a subject left unmentioned. If you are reading this then you are part of a minority. A minority, furthermore, who would generally like to see more public openness regarding dying, death and funerals. We know the benefits: peace of mind from discussing one’s individual wishes, removing an unnecessary burden of decision-making from the bereaved, possible financial advantages from advance planning, and so on. 

Death seems to be a taboo subject for many, but does the general reticence to mention death, let alone discuss it, make it so?  We need to understand how it this has come to prominence. It wasn’t around in the time of our Victorian forebears despite their sensibilities in many areas (skirts on piano legs, for example). Rather, it was paraded with openness in art and literature and surrounded by a great deal of etiquette and ritual. Type ‘Jay’s of Regent St’ into a search engine to see details of a whole store devoted to mourning dress and accessories. So what happened in the last century to bring about such a seismic change? 

First, war and a pandemic. The First World War brought death on such a massive scale that repatriation was not feasible and Victorian and Edwardian notions of mourning were unsustainable. The scale of loss of life was immediately surpassed as a result of a global ‘flu pandemic and in the aftermath ‘death’ as a subject began to be swept under the carpet.  

Second, and there’s a degree of irony here, better living. In the 20’s and 30’s homes fit for heroes might have been a bit thin on the ground, but improvements in medicine and sanitation brought about a significant rise in life expectancy which had been less than 50 years for both men and women in 1900. Conversations http://www.mindanews.com/buy-cialis/ which began “We should talk about what happens when I die” would increasingly be answered by “Don’t be silly, you’ve got years ahead of you!” 

Third, and perhaps most relevant, is the simple fact that death is now largely institutionalised. Death happened in Victorian homes; now the event is most likely to occur in a hospital, outside the home and away from friends and family. It is most likely too that they will not see the body which will be removed by undertakers. Undertakers themselves would prefer the use of the term ‘funeral directors’, another example of the dead being at a distance from the family.  

Taboo? Perhaps on reflection it’s not so much that death is a forbidden topic as that for many people death happens to others, elsewhere, and is dealt with by someone else. And here’s the rub, denying the existence of death is unhealthy. Unless we can change that mindset we run the risk of creating psychological problems and we lose control: control of that which we wish for ourselves, that which will ease the pain of bereavement and even lessen the likelihood of family disputes and squabbles.  

Put bluntly it is my view that we would all be the  better if more people felt able to have conversations about death and its various implications. Projects such as the Good Funeral Guide and the Natural Death Centre have done and are doing sterling work but there’s a lot that individuals could do. Think of all the clubs and societies in your area – from the W.I. to Rotary via Probus, Lions, Mothers’ Union and countless others, the one thing they have in common is that from time to time they struggle to find speakers. Offer your services. Challenge them to put death on the agenda.


In jest?

Lockwood woman’s colourful funeral request – including a jester to walk in front of hearse

Funeral director Debbie Ingham dressed as a jester at the funeral of Margaret Harper

IT WAS a fitting end to a colourful life.

Lockwood grandmother Margaret Harper had only one dying wish – that no-one wore black to her funeral.

Friends and family rallied around this week to dress as brightly as possible to celebrate the 81-year-old’s life.

And funeral director and family friend Deborah Ingham stuck to her promise by leading the cortege dressed as jester.

The funeral procession turned heads in Lockwood as it slowly made its way towards Huddersfield crematorium.

Mourners then gathered at Lockwood Baptist Church – where Margaret was a member and ran the Sunday school for many years – for a celebration of her life.

Her daughter Geri Harper, 55, said: “There was a big cheer and laughter when everyone saw the procession. Someone even said ‘only at Margaret Harper’s funeral could they turn up and everyone bursts into laughter.’

“That is what she would have wanted.

“Debbie is a friend of the family and used to live next door to us when she was a kid.

“When she became a funeral director, my mum would tell her there was no way she would wear black to her funeral.

“She was even going to knit Debbie a poncho but never got around to it.

“That was her only request at her funeral, that everyone would wear bright clothes.”


Read more about Deborah Ingham here

Posted by Evelyn

Mourning glory

By our funeral historian, Richard Rawlinson

Ashes into Glass is a jewellery company that inserts cremation ashes into crystal glass rings, pendants, earring and cufflinks. See the results here

“It has helped me feel a little calmer about losing my dear Mum by knowing that a little part of her is always with me,” says Teresa Evans Mortimer in one of the customer testimonials.

There’s something rather Victorian about companies marketing their products specifically at the bereaved (bereaved people). Queen Victoria made jet beads soar in popularity along with lockets holding curls of hair from deceased loved ones. 

Stationers such as Henry Rodrigues of Piccadilly offered black bordered note paper and envelopes, and the London General Mourning Warehouse advertised in The Times (1 November 1845) that “millinery, dresses, cloaks, shawls, mantles, &c., of the best quality can be purchased at the most reasonable prices.” Such an emporium would be a Goth’s paradise today.

Then again, when Victoria died, the Secretary to the Drapers’ Chamber of Trade, wrote to The Times (26 January 1901) to suggest that the 12 months of Court Mourning would profoundly impact on the retail drapery trade which ordered colourful cloth three or four months in advance. 

Ironically, although expected to mourn, women were generally advised against attending funerals. Cassell’s Household Guide for 1878 discourages the practice pointing out that it is something done by female relatives in the poorer classes.