Emily Post Eliminates a Funeral Tradition

U.S. President Herbert Hoover and film star Mary Pickford in 1931.

U.S. President Herbert Hoover and film star Mary Pickford in 1931.

Recently, I wrote about Emily Post’s thoughts on funeral flowers. But, she devoted a whole chapter to funerals in her 1939 book, Etiquette. On this go-round, you’ll learn how Ms. Post viewed mourning, how she dispelled the “sitting up” tradition, and how she viewed servants who would not help during a time of need.

First, it was required that the affected family have “women friends” who followed similar taste and fashion. They could be relied upon to poke through a closet to find appropriate black dresses for the female mourners in the house. That friend also would make a list of any other items, such as gloves, that “will have to be procured.” All dressmaking establishments at the time must have been very competitive, as Ms. Post stated that they provide precedence to mourning orders and “will execute a commission within twenty-four hours.”

Additionally, clothing stores at the time would send a selection of clothes to a house on approval (this is providing that the house was firmly established in the neighborhood). With that said, Ms. Post does state that lending mourning materials, such as veils and wraps, is appropriate so that clothing that needed to be purchased could be kept to a minimum.

As for men, she writes:

As men’s clothes are standardized, most men can go to a clothier and buy a ready-made black suit. Otherwise they borrow one from a friend or wear what they have with a black band put on the left sleeve.

The tradition of “sitting up” with the deceased was popular before the practice of using embalming and funeral homes. Ms. Post stated that – by 1939 – this practice no longer was necessary unless the deceased “be a prelate or personage whose lying-in-state is a public ceremony, or unless it is the particular wish of the relatives.” She also stated the following, which may have been some relief for families who were not wealthy:

Nor is the soulless body dressed in elaborate trappings of farewell grandeur. Everything is done to avoid unnecessary evidence of the change that has taken place. In case of a very small funeral the person who has passed away is sometimes left lying in bed in night clothes, or on a sofa in a wrapper, with flowers, but no set pieces, about the room, so that an invalid or other sensitive bereft one may say farewell without ever seeing the all too definite finality of a casket. In any event the last attentions are paid in accordance with the wish of those most nearly concerned.

The above explanation could answer the question previously asked about how to get a casket through the door of a home in the article, Notes on the Old-Fashioned Home Funeral. If no casket was required, then the door would not be an issue. Remember, also, that she wrote this book first just as the Great Depression hit and the last edition was rendered immediately before World War II. During that entire decade, even the wealthy watched their pennies. Death’s pomp took second place, perhaps, behind groceries for the living.

Yet, Ms. Post felt the need to talk about servants and their duties during mourning. Although she began this section kindly, with a note that “kindness of heart is latent in all of us, and servants, even if they have not been long with a family, rise to such an emergency as a funeral,” at the end of this section, she wrote:

Family and intimate friends occupy all available accommodations, but it is a rare household which does not give sympathy as generously below stars as above; and a servant who did not willingly and helpfully assume a just share of the temporary tax on energy, time and consideration would be thought very heartless by the others.

Although I have not read this entire chapter about funerals in full detail, I have glanced through it. Not once — at least not yet — have I seen Ms. Post write about how to conduct oneself during a funeral for a servant. That said, Etiquette offers details on how the end of life was observed almost seven decades ago in this country. It is a perspective that is both curious and amusing in some details, as most citizens today are far removed from that lifestyle. At the same time, her work shows how outward details may have provided a hint of denial about death itself.

To get a grip on what 1930 might have looked like in regards to fashion, visit the Fashion in 1931 page at Wikipedia.

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