I officiated at a funeral the other day. The mother of a long-time-family-friend died. The family is close and loving, but not part of a larger spiritual or religious cohort and therefore was feeling stuck about funeral arrangements. I was happy to help out and genuinely like the role of providing open, welcoming and meaningful religious ritual for unaffiliated folks. I didn’t know the mom, but knew one of her sons very well (the best friend of my uncle since grade school and someone I idolized when I was a kid) and knew that at least some of the family members were non-practicing Christians (in addition to the non-practicing Jews I’d been called in by). So I focused mostly on making sure the Judaism in the service was accessible and engaging and that the funeral service itself was meaningful and spoke to people of all faiths, any faith or no faith at all.
I worked on the ceremony most of the weekend, but it wasn’t until the morning of the funeral that I realized, with that too familiar apprehensive dread, that I didn’t know what to wear. I know it seems small and insignificant, and that I whine about it way too much, but not having official formal-wear sucks! The greatest eulogy ever can go unheard because of a sloppy, ill-dressed officiant. At least in my book. And maybe that’s a bit over-dramatic, but I feel like it’s still true. I also feel like I already stand out so much, I don’t want to make it worse by dressing outside of convention as well.
I chose a nice pair of dress pants, button-down shirt and my Dr Marten wingtips. While not a suit, or even a sport coat, it wasn’t chinos or a flannel shirt. I didn’t wear a white t-shirt underneath. And I buttoned up the shirt to the next-to-last button. I looked crisp if not formal.
I shouldn’t have worried overmuch. The deceased’s sons (including my uncle’s friend) were, quite frankly, abominably dressed in ill-fitting suits, and some with sneakers. My childhood big-brother-uncle-stand-in, now a middle-aged man, stood with an enormous belly flagrantly manifest through his suit jacket that clearly could not have been buttoned if his life depended on it. His shirt was so tight the buttons screamed in protest and his pants were baggy, belted just under his “waist”. The whole suit was extremely wrinkled (not to mention extremely unflattering), as if purloined from the back of his closet where it had pooled on the floor unceremoniously since the last formal occasion he attended. His sneakers, while black, were not even quasi shoes. His brother and other male relatives were equally poorly dressed in unshapely, wrinkled burlap bags (or the suit equivalent). Does no one own an iron? Live near a dry-cleaner? Know about ZOOTS?!
The women were, as usual, wearing dresses or dress suits, looking sharp and appropriately attired. There were a few younger men in attendance who were dressed very nicely in stylish suits and handsome ties. I looked longingly at those. Not only do I like the look of a suit and tie, I wish one looked normal on me. Not dressing nicely enough or formally enough can be distracting, eliciting questions and invoking comments, taking attention away from the reason we are all there. But so would me wearing a suit. Instead of people being focused on my inappropriately informal clothing, they would be wondering, “Is that a woman wearing a men’s suit?” or “Why is a woman wearing a men’s suit?” I don’t like either option. I calmed myself by reminding myself that the reality is that I stand behind a large podium that covers much of me anyway. And once I begin, asking everyone to breathe deeply and focus on the sacred task at hand, I’m in my zone. I want people to concentrate and contemplate the solemnity of the moment, the life that is no longer, the bereaved and the ethereal realm where concepts of death abide, not my clothes. But still, clearly, the whole dilemma rankles me.
After the service as we milled about in the funeral home waiting to get into cars for the motorcade going to the cemetery I noticed two young men huddled together, crying and comforting one another. I first noticed them I think because they looked sharp in their stunning suits and fashionable shoes, handsome with their close-cropped hair and beards and goatees. I think they caught my attention initially because they were very close to what I see when I look at myself through my mind’s eye. Ok ok, maybe not the young part.
But as I took in the distance between us and really looked at them, I noticed something more about them. Both men were actually also quite effeminate, clearly gay. To be clear, it was their maleness that I see in myself, not their gayness. At any rate, I’m not sure whether they were grandsons of the deceased and either cousins or brothers, or perhaps only one was and the other was a boyfriend or a partner. They looked back at me with equal significance, and as we got on coats and fished in pockets for car keys they approached me to comment on the service and thank me.
In the privacy of my own car in the funeral procession, I thought a lot about those young men. I wondered what it was like for them to see something of themselves (even if for them it was just the gay thing) mirrored in the person of authority, the officiant, at this poignant moment in their lives. I realized that I never saw myself modeled in any adults in my life growing up. No teachers or physicians, no firefighters, police officers, rabbis or bank tellers. How sad. And lonely. And confusing to have no one mirror back to you what you might some day be. No wonder I’m so confused, or that I don’t even know what to wear. No one ever modeled for me how to be me in the world! I never saw another me anywhere.
The realization was startling. And at the same time, the confirmation of that comprehension also afforded me a modicum of compassion for myself. Charting new territory can be exciting and liberating. But it can also be lonely and arduous, a herculean task that is inexorable at times. The tenderness toward myself has been immensely comforting, opening me up to new awareness I want to keep exploring.