Dressed for Death


What does your last outfit say about you? Most of us have encountered the task of dressing the dead. What will they wear?

When we lost my mother-in-law, the fate of Nancy’s outfit was an easy decision during a difficult time.

“Everyone looks good in red!” I can almost hear her saying in that deep husky voice, the result of a five-decade nicotine habit. She was a fashionable lady, and her sons made sure that she stepped out for the last time in style. Nancy bade a final farewell to the world in her cherry red Harvey Bernard suit.

My brother-in-law, Mike, had it specified in his will the he was to be buried in a tuxedo. Shortly after her husband collapsed of a sudden heart attack at the age of 47, my sister was standing in a men’s clothing store with me – our eyes puffy, cheeks tear-streaked, faces marked with the news of death.

When your heart is full of fresh grief, it’s surreal to be thrust into the everyday world of shopping.  I remember the sting of an innocent shopkeeper’s ‘Have a nice day!’ But Joan made sure that her husband’s wishes were carried out. Mike met his maker in a Pierre Cardin double-breasted tuxedo.

I’ve spoken to funeral directors and found that many dearly departed had very definite ideas about dressing for death.

“Dress Grandpa in a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans; he never wore a shirt and tie,” advised one director when asked by the family of a recently deceased outdoorsman.

‘Mama was a fashion plate,’ a family member said to another director, handing him an evening gown, a feather boa and a blonde wig.

One golfer requested to be dressed in his favorite golf shirt and hat, and buried with his clubs. ‘There’s bound to be a great green in Eternity,’ he was fond of saying.

Another funeral director told me he was handed a plastic bag with smelly tennis shoes. ‘Mom’s happiest times were when she was gardening,’ the daughter had explained.

Funeral directors also commented on the accessories.  The recently deceased are shuffling through the pearly gates in their favorite slippers, greeting the great beyond with a saber sword at their side and setting off with a cigar, equipped to bribe St. Peter.

“One guy took his cell phone!” said one funeral director. “In our business, we have to accept the family’s wishes and not pass judgment – you hear some very interesting requests.”

A friend of my in-laws, who was known to line her living room with multiple garment racks to help decide what to pack for a vacation, had an unusual request for her final fashion statement. Her burial included a two-day wake, followed by the funeral. She chose not one, but three outfits, and requested that her outfit be changed every day.

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