Formal black giving way to casual funerals

Black is still the traditional colour to wear at a funeral, but these days the bereaved are increasingly likely to don a kaleidoscope of hues when attending a memorial service, say observers and etiquette experts who notice a shift away from dark formal attire.

TORONTO — Black is still the traditional colour to wear at a funeral, but these days the bereaved are increasingly likely to don a kaleidoscope of hues when attending a memorial service, say observers and etiquette experts who notice a shift away from dark formal attire.

Bright colours, jeans, cleavage and even shorts are among the long-held taboos that are being broken at sombre farewells, bemoans Peter Post, great-grandson of the late manners maven Emily Post.

Post says he’s surprised by the casual approach some mourners take to funerals these days, noting that the sea of black that might have distinguished services of yore is no longer the norm.

“I have been somewhat taken aback at times by the clothes that people choose to wear to what is a respectful and sort of a solemn occasion,” Post says from the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt.

“I’ve seen people show up in shorts, which I thought was wrong . . . . and it was just like, ‘What are you doing?”’

But those extreme cases are rare, says Toronto funeral director Jordan Benjamin, who nevertheless agrees that strict conventions about what to wear to a funeral service have loosened.

“In the past where it may have been all black and dark colours, I think it’s more a question of people dressing respectfully and dressing for the weather, whatever that may be,” says Benjamin, whose family has provided Jewish funeral services at the Benjamin Park Memorial Chapel for four generations.

“Most of the time they’re still in the darker shades.”

Still, there are enough infractions to get Clinton Kelly of TLC’s What Not to Wear in a fit over poorly dressed mourners.

“I hate when people wear jeans and sneakers to a funeral,” says Kelly, who advocates donning the old standby, black, but also suggests grey. “That really bothers me. It’s just disrespectful. It’s like, would you show up in pyjamas if you could?”

Saskatoon pastor David Tumback says he’s noticed dressed-down mourners, too, but doesn’t believe it in any way signals disrespect.

He notes that people in general have taken a relaxed approach to appearance over the years, whether it be for a night out on the town or going to mass.

“People have taken a more casual approach to everything, of course this also has a spillover effect in the church,” says Tumback, who serves a relatively young Catholic congregation of roughly 2,000 families.

“Upscale restaurants, they play to a casual kind of clientele.”

When it comes to funerals, even pastors have turned away from black, he notes.

“The wearing of the black vestments is an option but I’m going to say the great majority, and probably about 90 per cent, wear white vestments at a funeral because it’s a symbol of joy,” says Tumback, who was ordained in 1995.

Society’s changing view on how best to honour the dead has shifted the way some people regard funerals, adds Post.

He recalls a service that concluded with a standing ovation for the deceased, giving the ceremony an air of celebration rather than sorrow.

“The whole audience stood up and it became like this really positive sort of recognition of the specialness of the person rather than just a sort of a tearful farewell,” he says.

This was certainly the case at a packed public funeral for theatre legend William Hutt in 2007, an emotional ceremony that in many ways served as a tribute to his life.

Among more than 400 people who packed an Anglican church to remember the Stratford Festival icon was an actress dressed in a brightly coloured floral print dress and an actor in a cream suit.

One of Tumback’s most memorable services had him looking out over a sea of purple, when the family of a young girl who had died requested that mourners wear her favourite colour.

“And that was, I thought, a really kind of a cool gesture and certainly it assisted the family in mourning,” says Tumback, noting that he, too, wore purple.

Still, even if there is an explicitly relaxed dress code, Post cautions against straying too far from tradition. The danger of offending a grieving family when emotions could still be raw is too great.

“You can be safe about that much more easily by wearing something that is more subdued, something that is not drawing attention to yourself in that kind of situation,” he advises.

The most important thing to keep in mind is the purpose of the event, says Kelly, who stops by CTV’s The Marilyn Denis Show on March 4 for a makeover contest.

“It’s about paying respect to the people who are really going through a terrible loss and are mourning. You don’t want to wear a Hawaiian shirt, but you can wear anything that’s sombre,” says Kelly, who also lashes out at revealing clothing.

“I have seen cleavage at a funeral, which I think is also inappropriate because God is watching. God is watching us from above and He can see right down in there.”