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Dressing for a funeral

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As funeral traditions continue to change in the UK, so are people’s expectations about the ‘right’ thing to wear to the ceremony.

For years there was no question; everyone who could afford it wore black. In fact, our ancestors often left money in their will to pay for ‘mourning attire’.

The ‘go to’ outfit is still predominantly formal clothing of any sombre colour – even at traditional funerals, I may wear a dark charcoal grey suit, particularly if the family has indicated that they do not want it to be all black but do not feel ready to depart from tradition completely.

And that’s the key to it all – what does the family want? It pays to find out because although you might think, ‘I’ll wear black to be on the safe side’, if everyone else is in buttercup yellow or even fancy dress then you are still going to stick out like a sore thumb. And you, as one of the mourners, do not want to stand out.

One of the good things about wearing black is that everyone blends in. This is one of the most important and distressing days in the lives of the family closest to the bereaved – no one who cares for them will want to take centre stage either because of their clothing or their actions and, when everyone wore the same, there was no danger of being the person everyone stared at.

There are various ways to check beforehand what the family would prefer. Obviously, you can contact the funeral director or member of the family arranging the funeral service. If you are not comfortable doing that, look online to see if they have posted an obituary on a site such as FuneralGuide or with the funeral director. If they want specific attire, the chances are they will let people know there.

But what if someone tells you; ‘Oh we don’t mind, wear what you like’?

There are still some useful guidelines to follow:

Ladies

  • Unless the family has made a specific request, dark, relatively formal attire will ensure that you blend in and avoid causing offence. A simple dress, a pair of tailored trousers and smart shirt or a suit will take you to most funerals without embarrassment. If you usually wear clothing appropriate to your background culture or ethnicity, do not feel you have to change that but make sure it is the type of thing that you would wear to work or a special occasion.
  • Just because it’s black does not make it appropriate funeral wear. Unfortunately, in an age when we attend far fewer funerals than our forebears, many ladies seem to think just because a dress is black, it can be worn by a mourner. Thigh-length dresses and skirts or shoulder-less and cleavage-flaunting tops – black or coloured – really have no place at a funeral ceremony.
  • Be comfortable. There’s usually a lot of hanging around outside the church or chapel before and after the ceremony. You might again find yourself on your feet if you are invited to a reception afterwards. Comfortable shoes and a fuss-free outfit are a must. That does not mean wearing trainers but, if that’s your only option, give them a scrub before you go.
  • Be prepared to leave the heels at home. If you are attending a burial, particularly a natural burial, you may face wet and muddy conditions even if it’s not actually raining. Natural burial grounds have no paths around the graves – you will be standing on grass and, probably, uneven ground. If it’s winter or a wet day, it’s not unusual to see people wearing raincoats and wellies.

Men

  • A suit and tie will take you anywhere. If the funeral turns out to be less formal than expected, ditch the tie. Either way, traditionally the tie worn to a funeral is dark and sombre – no superhero cartoons or funny quotes. If you usually wear clothing appropriate to your background culture or ethnicity, do not feel you have to change that but make sure it is the type of thing that you would wear to work or a special occasion.
  • If you have not got a suit, a pair of tailored trousers with a shirt is a good alternative – keep the shirt a single, white or pastel block colour for preference. If the only pair of trousers you have are jeans, make sure they are clean and dig out the smartest shirt or jacket you have in your wardrobe to go with them.
  • Be prepared to don wellies. As I said for the ladies, if you are attending a burial, conditions can be wet and muddy even if the weather that day is fine. Natural burial grounds have no paths around the graves – you will be standing on grass and, probably, uneven ground.
  • Traditionally, well-polished shoes rather than trainers are worn to funerals in Britain. If your only option is trainers, get them as clean as you can.

Children

  • Remember the importance of comfort and being prepared for conditions, particularly at a burial. Both boys and girls will appreciate being in clothes that are familiar – everything is going to be strange enough without making them ‘dress up’, but best leave the Minnie Mouse ears and Batman mask at home – like you, children should not be wearing something that draws too much attention to them.

Where there are specific requests

  • Do your best to follow them. You may think that yellow makes you look sallow or you really cannot stand Manchester United but remember, this is not your day. If you are attending a funeral, it’s to support those who are grieving and following their wishes is one way to do that.
  • Think laterally. If you are asked to wear a specific colour that you do not have in your wardrobe, include it as a gesture by way of a scarf or tie. If it’s a sports theme, buy or borrow a team badge. A trawl around charity shops might get you something at a price that will not hurt – and you will be helping a good cause!

The content of this article is the responsibility of the author alone. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Institute of Civil Funerals and information is published in good faith without guarantee from the Institute that it is accurate.

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