It has been years since I did one of these posts. Truly, I'm surprised it didn't occur to me to consult Amy Vanderbilt in May when my grandmother died, or even better, a few months earlier when a cousin died. If I had, I wouldn't now be reading in agony as I count the faux pas committed at her memorial service. Now my grandfather is dying. The one who raised me. Finally I seek Ms. Vanderbilt's advice and find it profuse.
Of course, funerals were very different affairs now than in Jane Austen's day, when they were all male, processional affairs (for an elaborate discussion of period funerary customs, check out this post at The Regency Redingote). Yet for all the obvious differences, probably the most significant is the length and importance of the mourning period, to which Ms. Vanderbilt gives a nod:
Some people take much longer than others to recover from the death of a loved one. The healing time should never be rushed; in fact, expressing grief is an important part of the recovery process. There is no longer such a thing as a prescribed mourning period for those close to the deceased. In the past, a widow or widower was expected to mourn (and wear black) for a year or, in some religions, for the rest of his or her life. Fortunately this has changed. Sensible people would want their surviving loved ones to continue on with life.
Today, as soon as one feels up to it, social and business activities may be resumed. Well-meaning friends should be sensitive and not push social engagements on someone who has lost a spouse until that person indicates interest. On the other hand, one would obviously not give or attend wild parties or go dancing immediately after the funeral of a loved one.
I cannot even begin to replicate the twenty plus pages she dedicates to funerary matters, so beyond this noted difference from the 19th century, I'm just going to focus on her list of Do's and Don't for the modern mourner, as I think it gives a good overview:
- Whether or not you attend a funeral is a decision only you can make, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Never criticize someone for not attending a funeral.
- When talking about death, stay clear of euphemisms like "he passed away," or "She's found her resting place." Death is what it is. Pretending otherwise is unrealistic.
- Unless you are an intimate friend of the deceased's family, don't drop by their house to offer your condolences. Call first. When you do call, ask if there is anything you can do to be of help to the family. Or make your offer very specific, such as putting up relatives of friends from out of town.
- In you cannot go to the funeral home during calling hours, you can stop in at another time. Be sure to sign the guest book, so the family knows you were there (even though you sin your name in the guest book, you should still write a condolence letter).
- If the obituary notice states that the funeral is private, do not ask to attend.
- If you attend a funeral and the internment is private, do not go to the internment unless specifically asked to.
- When you arrive at the church or funeral home, you will be shown to a seat by an usher. A woman does not take the usher's arm at a funeral, unless she is frail or unsteady on her feet.
- If the clergy person announces at the end of the funeral that you are invited to the deceased's family's house for lunch and you already have a lunch date, drop by anyway for a few minutes. The family will be grateful you did.
- When a Jewish family is sitting shivah, it means they are available for condolence calls, especially during morning or evening prayers. It's best not to come at mealtimes, and calls are never made on the Sabbath -- from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. If you are uncertain about when to make a visit, you may call the family and ask.
- Try to remember a friend who has had a recent death in the family when Christmas or some other holiday comes around. This is a time when she will most need your love and support. Instead of a Christmas card, write a note saying, "I know this Christmas will a sad one for you, but I cannot let it go by without your knowing you are in my thoughts and that I send you a great deal of love." You can be certain this thoughtful gesture will be important to your friend.
- Mark the date of the deceased's death on your calendar so you can write a note to your friend, the survivor, on the anniversary. Just a short note saying you're thinking of her will be a source of comfort. Flowers are also appropriate at this time.
As the anniversary of my friend's father's death next month, I will be acting on the last one.
The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette was definitely written for a largely protestant audience, but her slant and the mentioning of shivah made me consider how different all the funerals I have attended over the past eleven months have been. One was Episcopalian. The turnout was enormous for an important man struck down in his prime. I imagine this was the kind of funeral Ms. Vanderbilt largely had in mind. Next I attended a small, intimate Baptist funeral. Far less formal, with hours spent back at the family home afterwards. Attendees were asked to stand and share any thoughts they wanted to share. This was also the predominate feature of the most recent funeral, my grandmother's, which was a Quaker ceremony. Almost the entire family stood and shared recollections, as did her many friends in attendance. It was simple, short, but beautiful. When my grandfather dies we will sit shivah. Having grown up in his house, it is the jewish mourning ritual with which I am most familiar. I presume it will be at my aunt and uncle's house, and we will spend the better part of the week burying, praying, telling stories, and perhaps most importantly eating. Food will play a much bigger and more formal role in in this mourning process. I wish Ms. Vanderbilt had advice on how not to overeat.
Despite differences in religion, time, and culture, I think the fundamentals of funerals and mourning are pretty universal. Death is a fissure that changes forever those closest to the departed. When it is a parent or grandparent, the roots that have always supported you are suddenly chopped away, the slightest breeze makes you waver, and the future seem terrifyingly insecure and lonely. With time, we recover, but the wound remains. The care and companionship inherent in mourning provides much needed TLC as mourners struggle to figure out what the world is without this dead person in it to turn to, talk to, and love.