When it comes to officiating funerals, I am fairly easygoing and liberal about what goes on. Toss your dear aunt’s earrings after the lowered casket? Sure. Play a recording of the deceased’s singing from a recital in her teens? No problem. But one time at a graveside service, my eyes helplessly kept returning to the attire of the next-of-kin, who moreover was delivering the longest and most heartfelt eulogy of the occasion. My eyes were roving thus because a pair of jeans was taking the star role in his ensemble.
As far as I could discern, this mourner was not conveying anger or disrespect toward the deceased through sartorial signals. His eulogy did not hint at his relief and joy at finally getting rid of the %&*!% Nor was he rebelling against ritual or religion, though he may have been indifferent to social convention when all he cared about at that heightened moment was the loss of his loved one. Besides, haven’t we all seen jeans and other informal wear at religious services and weddings? I myself was not much bothered on such occasions, but this time I inwardly fretted that the perhaps well-intentioned gentleman did not have a sense of propriety. I felt that the final frontier for jeans should stop short of a funeral, especially for the chief mourners themselves. But again why was I thinking like such a stuffed shirt about it? One might say formal clothing contributes to respect for the dead, which may enter into my complex of feelings. Jeans can communicate the message, “I am not taking this seriously or deeply or at least I am pretending to myself not to.” Or more simply, “I don’t care.” Yet as his eulogy showed, he certainly did care deeply.
But there must be more to this clothing issue for me (and for you?) besides that. After all, as a loved one approaches death, the relationship can be more intimate than ever as final reflections are voiced, meaningful and poignant events reviewed, and goodbyes are uttered. Informal clothes imply such closeness. Once the funeral begins, however, most of us create distance from the departed and everyone else present with an upgrade in our dress. Perhaps the subconscious impulse operating here is our acknowledgment that a great divide has opened up between ourselves and our lost loved ones. We stand in humility and in fear and in in awe and yes even in wonder at this Separation of separations.
A funeral is a time to ponder what the life of the deceased was all about and what our relationship with the deceased amounted to, and what we could be doing with our own lives going forward. At that funeral, if you get right down to it, the offending jeans, being the most everyday clothing possible, minimized the out-of-the-ordinary elements of that day. Funerals are a rare opportunity for families and communities to reflect and to mourn, to make amends and to show gratitude and love. Let us not have informal wear blur the distinction between heightened awareness and mere routine.
Reprinted from my March 11, 2015 guest post in a blog about Jewish burial societies called Expired and Inspired, in the Jewish Journal. The original article appears in: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/why_i_am_a_stuffed_shirt_about_jeans_at_a_funeral