There’s a new trend in burial apparel, apparently. According to an article in The Guardian, “funeral directors are reporting the death of formal funeral attire for British corpses. Out: the three-piece suit. In: jeans, a favourite jumper, a football strip, specialist workwear, pyjamas, or hobby clothes.”
Pyjamas? ‘Hobby clothes’? How bizarre.
Or is it?
If you’ve been following my blog for a few years you may remember that I did my MA dissertation on the subject of how we treat dead bodies, and what that can tell us about how we think about life and death. I realised that every culture everywhere has had special rituals or processes they follow when disposing of dead bodies, and that we in the ‘enlightened’ West are no exception. There’s a reverence about the process, a sense that great care and respect should be shown, even to and by those who firmly believe that the corpse is just a bundle of cells, waste matter that is only good for pushing up daisies.
So what does it say when the standards start to slip?
First, let’s think about why corpses were traditionally dressed in suits or their best dresses anyway. I imagine it is the same reason that people used to dress up to go to church. Even though we know that God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance, it was a sign of respect that we approached an audience with him dressed in our ‘Sunday best’. How much more so, then, when going to meet him in person? Again, we know logically that our clothes are the last thing either we or he will be worrying about when at last we meet him face to face, but still, it seems disrepectful not to make the effort.
So what has changed? Of course, one big thing is that far fewer people wear suits or smart dresses these days, except maybe for work. “There’s probably no point putting a suit on someone who never wore a suit in their lives.”
But we still don’t bury people naked, or just in whatever they happened to be wearing at the time of their death. Why? Sometimes it’s a way to care for the person one last time:
Rosie Grant, who runs Natural Endings in Manchester, points to the sense in which we want our loved ones to feel “comfy” on their final journey. “A lot of people want to dress their relatives in something that’s snuggly,” she says. “Especially, if there has been a care-giving role, the care-giver will often try to make sure that person is warm and comfortable.”
Grant also says it is to do with recognising the personhood of the corpse, even though he or she can no longer benefit by that recognition:
“Even if the family isn’t going to view the deceased, I always try to dress them in some of their own clothes. It gives them their personhood back. With women, I will ask for their makeup bag if possible.”
Just as we confer dignity on a living person when we recognise their individuality and uniqueness, so we confer a certain dignity on the deceased by acknowledging that individuality.
But of course, the other big reason that people don’t dress up to meet their maker any more is that they don’t believe in him. They dress in the kind of clothes they would like, and express their own personality, because there is no one else to dress for:
Perhaps, as our beliefs in the idea of heavenly rewards continue to dwindle, amplifying our own character has become increasingly important; being recognised for who we are has become the measure of all things.
“Amplifying our own character has become increasingly important.” What a statement. What a perceptive view of our culture. “Being recognised for who we are has become the measure of all things”, and it is idolatry. We should be seeking to point people to God, to demonstrate who he is, not to get in the way and been known for who we are.
I can feel this idolatry in myself. The thing that gets under my skin more than anything else is feeling misunderstood. No matter how trivial the issue, I feel a visceral anger and frustration when my words, actions or motives are misinterpreted. Why? Because deep down my identity feels threatened if people don’t see me accurately. As if I mattered that much! As if your opinion of me mattered. When I feel that happening, the only way I can get past it and let the discussion/argument drop is to go back to God and remember he knows, he sees the real me, he knows my true motives even if I don’t, and his opinion of me is the only one that matters. I have to ask his forgiveness for putting myself on the throne of my life once again, and humbly step aside and give him back his rightful place. It’s painful. It feels like a sacrifice every time. It feels like giving up something important, but it is the only way to gain freedom from the cycle of explanations and self-justifications.
So when my time comes, bury me in whatever you choose – I sincerely hope people will be looking at God, not my clothes. I know I will be.