Why I Am a Stuffed Shirt about Jeans at a Funeral

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

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9 thoughts on “Why I Am a Stuffed Shirt about Jeans at a Funeral

  1. Consuelo M Beck-Sague, MD says:

    And then, of course, there are the sartorial last requests! 🙂 Cubans do “luto” (dress in black) not only at funerals, but widows and orphans, for years or a lifetime. But my precious little cousin (may she rest in glory) requested that we dress in many, many colors for her funeral! And “motorcycle casual”. The elders (in their 90s) were gritting their teeth… but it was a rainbow of sundresses and Hawaiian shirts and Miami Beach pastels. A lot of the elders were saying “don’t even think about doing this when I die”, but there they were in their hot pink leisure suits. It was very, very sad. But there is a certain whimsical joy recalling such a mischievous last request. 🙂 It doesn’t really take all kinds, rabbi. But there ARE all kinds!!

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  2. I clicked “like” because that says it all! Your cousin’s legacy was to affirm life even at her funeral.Besides, you did not even mention jeans!

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  3. The above comment rather steals my thunder (in a manner of speaking!). I love clothes and dressing up for different occasions. As I buy a lot of dresses etc. in charity shops (thrift shops?) I don’t feel I am being too selfish with my money. But I certainly would not judge the mourner you described. His heart was obviously in the right place, and we all have different ideas and outlook. Sartorial elegance seems to have passed him by but he probably makes his priorities different from ours. I rather like the idea of black for funerals but also welcome the more modern idea of dressing in bright colours, as I’ve known requested several times over the last few years. Not too many jeans on show, though, I must admit!

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    • I by all means agree that if the deceased and/or friends and family REQUESTED or suggested unexpected attire, then that is an entirely different matter, carrying its own meaning. Regarding the case in question in the post, I think part of what was going through my mind is the trend overall to dress more informally, with the funeral being the last frontier so to speak. (I remember as a child, that we got dressed up to board a plane!) When distinctions are removed, something significant can be lost. This reminds me of a post I saw recently (by the Secular Chaplain) suggesting that we should think of every day as a holiday. I answered that given human nature, that would end up being no day is a holiday.

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      • Ah, Rabbi, a bow toward the secular chap, and here-be a comment! There is, I sense, just a tad bit of elitism in this post. As one who has performed scores of memorials for “poor folk”–mostly streetfolk who haven’t survived our neat-in-appearance culture–I would simply say, let people wear what they wish, mourn how they choose, and use as few words as possible.

        And, I must confess, I nearly always wore jeans, sandals and a beret when I conducted those services. . .and sometimes they were in a church! Scandal!

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      • I am very glad you challenged me to think this through even more deeply. Of course I could not agree more that whatever helps people mourn (short of hurting or denigrating others) should be the top priority. It is amazing what clothing communicates and how that varies according to context. Your wearing jeans while conducting a funeral for streetfolk was not, I gather, about being lazy about dressing up. It was a conscious choice for how to communicate that you were no better than them, and that they had no reason to feel intimidated by you. Rather, you wanted them to feel connected and cared about, thus facilitating their grieving. Thus wearing jeans was a deliberate compassionate act.
        I think when I originally wrote the post, I had a certain context in mind: middle and perhaps upper class Jewish families.And this was because the post first appeared in a Jewish publication, and I was trying to gear it to my audience. And most funerals I have officiated at have been for such people. When I officate, I think about Jewish principles such as “honoring the dead,” and one way to do that is by dressing more formally. But what I also think about is how to handle things when one principle (mitzvah) conflicts with another, and so if dressing up gets in the way of helping mourners, then by all means the mitzvah of helping mourners trumps the other concern.
        It is true that dress can speak to elitist concerns. One comment below mentioned Catholics protesting the pretentious wearing of “Sunday best” by Protestants as an influence upon wearing something informal at a funeral. At any rate, if I ever do a funeral for the poor, you have sensitized me to the possibility of keeping my dress simple.
        Clothing is endlessly fascinating, since it bears meaning on so many levels. Your comment has helped us all think about this more carefully.

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  4. Consuelo M Beck-Sague, MD says:

    Oh, Rabbi–I am TOTALLY with you, and so are/were the other old & older farts. Catholic kids go in flip flops and short to Church, but that’s something about US Catholicism, like to distinguish ourselves from Protestants and their “Sunday Best”. But at funerals it’s a bit of a shock… except as you say, when the dearly departed requests it. And yes, when I say “motorcycle chic”, that’s blue jeans, denim sleeveless jackets, ay, ay, ay… I am a hippie, that believes in holidays and honoring. But the substance of funerals is remembrance. And how some people want to be remembered is part of their legacy. Even those of us who gritted our teeth a little bit smile at the vision of that sea of rainbows at the little one’s funeral. 🙂

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  5. I really don’t like to see such informal wear at funerals. Just my preference. I dress in my best for someone I cared for. But, maybe that’s just me.

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