Today, photographing the dead is making a comeback. But this time it’s not only the deceased who are being photographed – it’s the entire funeral service. Candid shots of the … Continue reading Are You Thinking of Hiring a Funeral Photographer?
During a recent conversation about iconic New York City restaurants, I mentioned Elaine’s. “Elaine’s? Never heard of it,” someone said. “Never heard of Elaine’s!?” I asked in surprise about the … Continue reading Elaine & Jimmy: A Tale of Two Restaurateurs
In 1911, when newspaper publisher and journalist Joseph Pulitzer died, he was waked in the library of his Manhattan home. The room was filled with floral tributes and the furniture … Continue reading What You Need to Know When Considering a Home Funeral
I was honored to be asked to contribute an essay to NFDA’s ‘Director’ magazine in observance of the somber 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. I chose to write about … Continue reading How We Remember
Two summers ago, my cousin Elizabeth died. Her death was sudden and occurred less than two weeks after the death of her mother. But unlike her mother, who had a … Continue reading 12+ Things You Should Know About Planning a Memorial Service
As the winter of 2020 turned to spring, the death toll from Covid-19 seemed insurmountable. For funeral directors, it was the darkest and most challenging time we’ve ever faced. In … Continue reading Post Pandemic Funeral Service – Can We Find Some Normalcy?
An essential component of our role as funeral directors is to maintain the sanctity of our work and protect the privacy of those in our care. Something that continues to trouble me is the prurient interest some have in the most private part of funeral service. “I want to watch. Can I?” It is an embalming they are asking to watch. In mortuary school we were told that the only non–official who could legally watch was the next of kin. “But why would they want to?” asked out instructor.
Some years back, I was interviewed by a young freelancer for a piece about Green-Wood Cemetery (my book about the cemetery had recently been published). At the conclusion of our interview she asked if she could come to the funeral home to watch an embalming. It was not the first time I had been asked, and, as always, I was taken aback by the question. After telling her that she could not, she spitefully cut me out of her article. Not very professional!
At one time or another many funeral directors have been asked that question by the morbidly curious. Some feign an interest in funeral service as a way to gain entrée. At other times a funeral director is careless in his/her thinking, and allows a person into the preparation room. But that is always a mistake.
A colleague shared the story of a funeral home owner who allowed a friend to keep him company in the prep room. When the friend’s mother died, he went elsewhere for her funeral. When his funeral director friend asked why, he responded by saying, “I feared you would let someone else in to keep you company, and I didn’t want anyone to watch my mother being embalmed.” The funeral director’s indiscretion cost him a funeral –and the trust of a friend.
Recently, I overheard a “videographer” working on a potential documentary ask a funeral director if he could watch an embalming. I hope the funeral director will have the good sense to turn him down
It is both morally reprehensible, and illegal, to watch an embalming without being qualified to do so. Please don’t ask us to break the law. And if those factors don’t deter you, ask yourself this question: Would it be okay for strangers to watch the embalming procedure of someone you love?
Today I participated in my second home funeral. The visitation was held in a magnificent estate in Greenwich, Connecticut and, as we were getting things ready, a colleague remarked that … Continue reading Home Funerals
As deaths from the pandemic have, mercifully, subsided, cemeteries have relaxed a number of their restrictions. One that has yet to do so was the cemetery I was at this … Continue reading God Winks
Over my long career as a funeral director I’ve heard more than my fair share of eulogies. In a sense, eulogies are like taking a scenic drive through a life. … Continue reading The Art of Giving a Eulogy – Share the Best Stories and Get Personal About It
Have you ever uttered the words, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit!?” Well, you just might be – literally speaking – if you leave it to your family to decide what you’ll wear when the time comes for you to make your final public appearance. Now is the time to consider your final fashion options.
You May Just Get Lucky
Undoubtedly, some families get it right. The family of Salsa Queen Celia Cruz gave it a lot of thought. True to her diva style, she wore more than one outfit at her 2003 funeral, which took place in two cities.
For a public viewing in Miami, Florida’s Freedom Tower, Cruz was dressed in an off-white gown with a feather boa trimmed jacket, while for her wake at Frank E. Campbell’s in New York City, she was clad in a cream-colored gown with a white-sequined overlay.
Custom-made floating wedges with wood bottoms, and a change of wigs, completed both looks.
Funeral director William ‘Bill’ Harley, who accompanied Cruz’s remains to Miami, oversaw the clothing changes and reapplied her cosmetics daily.
Choice Was Not an Option
But few people should expect such expressions of individuality if they have not thought about their clothing options. For a long time, choice was not part of the funeral tradition.
“When I began my career, everyone wore gowns and suits. It’s a formal occasion and people dressed in their Sunday best,” said Harley.
Andrea Basile, the owner of Basile Funeral Home in Brooklyn, New York, concurs:
“When I started, there were only two options in women’s clothes: burial garments and a gown previously worn on a special occasion. It was all evening wear. Caskets were fully open, so clothing had to be full length.”
To fill that need, burial garment companies around the country became the designers to the dead, making their merchandise available for purchase through the funeral home.
Pastel burial gowns, usually made of polyester or nylon, and often adorned with satin and lace, were designed with the deceased in mind.
Taking post-mortem changes into account, necklines were high, sleeves long, and the material ample, easily adjustable for size. The addition of tulle, artfully arranged around the dress, gave an ethereal look.
Responding to that demand, Abigal Press, a New York funeral supply company with roots that go back to 1936, expanded its product line by purchasing a local burial garment company.
The clothing became “a convenience item” for families making funeral arrangements, said company president Jeff Gaines. But as the garments became more popular, they also became pricier, causing families to use the deceased’s own clothes, or to buy new from retail stores.
According to Gaines, burial garments being sold these days are usually for those who die in nursing homes when “mom hasn’t had a dress in years, nothing fits, or her weight has dropped tremendously.” For the most part, they have become “antiquated products.”
Shopping One’s Closet
Unless you make it known how you want to be dressed for the afterlife, it will be decided for you by your survivors.
Poring through a loved one’s closet in search of the outfit that best reflects who the deceased was can be emotionally wrenching. That closet holds a treasure trove of memories. For some, making the choice can be deeply rewarding.
“People may not know why, but when something is right, or better, they respond. They feel better about their dead and proud of themselves,” notes Basile.
For others, though, the choice may be difficult, and funeral directors have an important role to play. Harley believes that “the personal clothing of the deceased works best.” However, he adds, “we [as funeral directors] need to be specific when speaking with families about appropriate clothing for the deceased.”
When Harley meets with families at the arrangement conference, he asks them to provide clothing similar to what the deceased would have worn for a social occasion, including a full set of undergarments.
Stressing the need for a high collar, and long, opaque sleeves, he explains that these attributes will mask arms that are too thin or too heavy, or which have been poked and prodded with medical apparatus.
Being specific is especially important when the deceased is young. Harley is reminded of the funeral of a young woman who died suddenly. Her grief-stricken mother allowed her daughter’s best friend to choose her clothing.
The girl’s choice was a black leather miniskirt and a sleeveless blouse with a plunging neckline. Not an appropriate choice for a fully-autopsied remains, which is generally the case when one is young and death is sudden.
The condition of the remains must be taken into consideration when selecting clothes.
Over the years, Basile, who once worked for Pierre Cardin, has put together funeral outfits for both women and men in her care.
“I think women look better in a lightweight jacket, from silk to knitted.” She favors double-breasted jackets on men and a single turn in the tie. “A suit is fine but a navy blazer and charcoal or gray slacks are my favorites,” says Basile.
“I always emphasized the clothes should be appropriate for the person; keeping the deceased still looking like themselves.”
That was certainly true for Basile’s mother, who had purchased a pair of black velvet slacks with a matching bateau-neck tunic for herself not long before she died. With the addition of a sheer black jacket, chosen by Basile, it would serve as her final outfit.
“She looked fabulous,” Basile shares about her 96-year-old mother, whose natural dark brown hair had no more than a streak of gray. “Even though the casket was closed, I was happy she looked so much like herself. Her vanity would not have been frustrated.”
Although most times one’s last outfit is chosen by others, that is not always the case. Harley recalls the preparedness of an elderly lady, who had taken the time to think through her funeral.
“She had set aside a beautiful pink floral nightgown with a satin quilted bathrobe, a matching bracelet, and rosary beads. When she died, she looked beautiful in her pink ensemble which complemented the mahogany casket,” Harley remarks.
The woman was among those who opt for lounging pajamas and slippers, or a negligee, to be comfortably at rest.
When Basile’s own grandmother died at the age of 99, she dressed her in a similar style.
“I went to Bloomingdales and bought this incredible ice blue, silk jacquard nightgown, and matching jacket. All the lace on the bodice and bed jacket was pale beige. It was so appropriate and so beautiful that for years people asked for the same thing as we’d used for my grandmother,” shares Basile.
“Baby boomers have certainly introduced changes to funerals,” says Harley. But he notes that funerals have, for the most part, continued to be formal affairs, as evidenced by “the large percentage of traditional funerals, as well as the protocol of viewing the deceased.”
“Exceptions do exist,” he adds, recalling the funeral of a 50-year-old man who requested beforehand that on the morning of his funeral he be changed out of the suit he had worn for his wake into khaki shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt.
Today, when there are myriad choices, Basile draws the line at message T-shirts. “I think people should use anything personal as long as it is respectful. Exposing the dead requires at least some discretion.”
Funerary Fashion Tips
- Opt for long sleeves and high necklines.
- Avoid sheer and clingy fabrics.
- Sweaters and shawls work wonders for a snug or stained sentimental outfit.
- If unsure of size, choose the larger option.
- Keep the deceased’s favorite color in mind.
- A bright scarf does wonders for both a monochromatic suit and a thin neck.
- Buying new and on a budget? Consider an off-price store like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, or Macy’s Last Act.
This article was originally published on October 8, 2019 @ https://sixtyandme.com/fashion-to-die-for-how-to-choose-your-last-outfit-or-burial-gown/
Attended the funeral service for Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau at Temple Emanu-El today. New York City’s longest serving District Attorney would have turned 100 on July 31st. He is buried … Continue reading RIP Robert Morgenthau