Reader Response to Past Imperfect, Vol. 6, Issue 12

March 25th, 2007 . by Etiquetteer


Etiquetteer was quite surprised at the outpouring of reader comments after last week’s “Past Imperfect” column. A few choice responses, sometimes edited for length and to preserve anonymity, are offered today:

From a doctor: Some etiquette should be history for good reason. Thanks foran enjoyable and well-expressed column.

From a graphic designer: My husband and I thought about this, but as a wedding day flies by, and many people do not know how to keep things going, we opted out, with the exception of the informal hugs, kisses and handshakes as people exited the [Insert Name of Wedding Hall Here]. There the group of people behind exiting guests naturally impressed that a brief greeting was best.

At the calling hours following my mother’s death we did have a receiving line, which worked fairly well despite the number of people in it (6), and the many guests waiting in line. Receiving lines are formal, ritualistic things. Not without value, but no place for a heart to heart, or for two people who’ve not seen each other for years to embark upon a reunion.

My mother’s family, especially her sisters, took the clothing subject very seriously. Black dresses, stockings, gloves, hat, sweaters and coats for at least a year, whether at home or in town. I think I favor that over what one friend saw at his father’s calling hours a couple years ago. He said that nearly a dozen people all twentysomethings, showed up in nylon athletic running pants and sweatshirts. He was appalled. I agree that mourning a loss, a death, has a place.

Etiquetteer responds: Many years ago Etiquetteer attended a visitation at a funeral home. Three friends appeared wearing beach clothes: shorts and casual shirts. They’d learned of the death while returning from vacation and chose to show up in the wrong clothes rather than not pay their respects at all. Etiquetteer thinks they made the right decision. On the other hand, we could all take a lesson from the Queen of England, who always travels with something black in case she has to return home quickly due to a sudden death. (She also has someone do all the packing and dry cleaning for her . . .)

From Someone Who Would Know: One ugly feature you didn’t mention, but one that can tear the heart out of family and close friends, is the “open mike.” It seems to be a popular feature with some of our megachurches; however, if I hear it’s to be included in a service, I don’t go.

Etiquetteer responds: Etiquetteer must gently disagree with you. While the term “open mike” is better suited to a comedy club than a funeral, the custom of “bearing witness” to the life of the deceased can be a beautiful opportunity for mourners to share the good ways that their lives were affected by that person. That said, not everyone understands that There Are Limits on these occasions. Etiquetteer was once Absolutely Appalled at one memorial service to hear how a dead acquaintance had helped someone evade the law and posed for nude photographs. Really, that’s not the sort of story for Public Consumption!

From a Regular Reader: Enjoyed your article about mourning practices but you failed to mention people ‘producing’ the after-burial festivities before they die. I gather there are now ‘funeral planners’ who are similar to wedding planners except that the host pays but does not appear at the party. Videos of the departed run on a continuous loop, food, flowers, valet parking etc are over the top for those underneath the bottom. I guess we are not all equal in death. I had personal experience with about a year ago when someone in my condo building died after a long illness. She was Jewish and arranged for two evenings of a catered reception with floral arrangements (even though in traditional Judaism no flowers are present). It was held in the social room of the building and from a distance looked like a wedding reception. Moreover in discussions with friends I learned that this is now becoming common with people making videos that play continually. It is such a departure from the traditional way of mourning that are very carefully detailed down to the fact that the door of the house is left open so the mourner does not have open the door or that the mourner sits on a low stool to mark his/her status as one ‘brought low’ and that the food is to be brought into the house for the grieving family, not served to the guests who should be bringing the food. It has become such a party that I think it is bad taste to grieve now; might spoil the fun people are having.

From an engineer: My boss’s mother died, and in the Jewish tradition, she wore a small mourning button (Keriah), which if you know what it is, is a nice signal to lay low. The button carries an attached black cloth tail, which is cut as a substitute for tearing of actual clothes. It’s worn for 30 days.

Etiquetteer responds: Etiquetteer saw two Jewish ladies (on two different occasions) wearing such a button, but didn’t know its significance. But let Etiquetteer tell you, wearing that button with a loud red floral print blouse doesn’t really look like mourning to Etiquetteer.

From a journalist: When my mother died we had a memorial service instead of the traditional funeral — we couldn’t have a Jewish ceremony because a) she had died out of state and a Jewish ceremony has to be done within 24-hours, and b) she was cremated. We did have a very nice Rabbi who gave us the traditional mourning ribbon. This is a small black ribbon that is cut to symbolize how family members used to tear their clothing in grief. The tradition is to cover the mirrors for a week, you light a candle that lasts a week, and you wear the ribbon for a month. Then I guess, although I never had any counseling on this, you should begin a period of healing. Better than three years of mourning.

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Past Imperfect, Vol. 6, Issue 11

March 18th, 2007 . by Etiquetteer



PAST IMPERFECT

Vol. 6, Issue 11, March 18, 2007

 

Many people assume that etiquette writers, not just Etiquetteer, believe that everything was better in the past than it is today. Etiquetteer is here to tell you “Not so!” Many old customs have fallen out of fashion because they became overdone and not particularly conducive to good human relations. Etiquetteer would now like to look at some of the “vices and virtues” of the past, both things that we can do without and those we would do well to bring back.

MOURNING AND MOURNING CLOTHES

Grief and sadness are common emotions when a loved one dies. Society has developed traditions and rituals to comfort the bereaved: letters of sympathy, offerings of food or flowers brought to the home, funerals and memorial services, and even mourning clothes. The latter, including armbands, memorial buttons or badges, black-bordered handkerchiefs, and of course the famous mourning veil, served two purposes: to show respect to the dead and also to warn others not to bring up sensitive subjects.

But the idea of having to wear all black for at least three years after the death of a spouse or be thought not to have loved him or her . . . well, it’s just silly. Enough people in the mental health profession have already shown how excessive mourning prevents people from resuming their daily lives. The sort-of cult of mourning in the 19th Century, complete with memorial illustrations, restrictions on where one might go and to whom one might speak there, could lead one to Distraction, and probably did.

Now Society has moved to the opposite end of the spectrum by denying grief altogether. We “celebrate the life” of the deceased instead of mourning the death, wear colors to actual funerals if we attend at all, and use the convenience of e-mail when the special effort of writing a letter is so much more appreciated by the bereaved. And black, now so fashionable, is no longer a signal of mourning. Etiquetteer has witnessed on more than one occasion one person joke with another “Wow, black! Who died?” only to hearexactly who the deceased was.

One of the innovations of which Etiquetteer heartily approves is the mourning button with the picture of the deceased on it. Frequently made in the 19th Century for public figures (Presidents Lincoln and Garfield come to mind), they are now more widely seen and more easily made than they were 150 years ago.

Etiquetteer would like to see a middle ground between these extremes: a service where one could acknowledge one’s sadness by mourning the death as well as “celebrating the life,” wear mourning colors at least through the funeral (but not for an extended period unless the bereaved chooses to do so), and yet not be thought insensitive when one feels the need no longer to demonstrate mourning.

CALLING AND CALLING CARDS

“The old arbitrary Washington custom of calling has lapsed entirely, and I lay a wreath on its grave without regret . . . ” said Ellen Maury Slayden as far back as 1918. The rules and regulations governing calling and leaving calling cards in the homes of friends and associates must have collapsed under their own complexity and inconvenience. Rules about who called on whom first, the time in which those calls had to be returned, members of the household for whom one (and/or one’s spouse) left cards and how many, even different messages to send by folding certain corners of the card, had to be rigidly obeyed or interpreted as slights or insults. Mrs. Slayden recorded in her journal getting a cold shoulder from someone new in town whose call she couldn’t return because she lived too far away. Not a satisfactory system at all, and rife with misunderstandings. At least it kept the engravers in business.

Now we have the Internet, which solves some of these problems, but creates new ones.

RECEIVING LINES

Etiquetteer loves a receiving line, let’s not be mistaken about that. But too much of a good thing can implode, and it’s no wonder to see this useful custom kicked to the curb. The first problem with a receiving line is having too many people in it. Etiquetteer’s beloved Ellen Maury Slayden recorded attending an afternoon reception in Washington where “there were twenty women in the receiving party ‘bunched,’ as we say in Texas, on one side of the room . . . ” And many of us remember weddings with a receiving line of twelve or more people: bride, groom, four parents, and eight or so bridesmaids. This is overkill, to say the least!

The second, and perhaps more noticeable problem, is that they take a long time. And the only reason for this is the garrulousness of the people in it. A receiving line is no place for a conversation! You are not rude if you say only “How do you do,” “Congratulations!” or “It’s so nice to see you again” and then pass to the next person. Really, it’s rude if you say more and hold up everyone behind you. The time for conversation is during the party. Thoughtful brides and grooms (or other guests of honor) circulate among the guests during the reception in order to talk more.

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify <at> etiquetteer.com.