The awkward etiquette of death
Death, for many of us, is a disconcerting subject. It’s one to which there is no universally acceptable response or reaction, despite it being the only certainty in all our lives.
When it comes to everyday life, on the whole, we know what is expected of us. We understand that it is polite to hold the door for someone behind you, say please and thank you and that it’s not nice to talk with our mouths full. But death can throw a curveball, taking away that security. It rips apart normal etiquette, suddenly the rules elude us and we no longer know what to do with ourselves.
I recently attended the funeral of a lifelong friend of my father. His death was a sudden and unexpected loss. Whilst it is never easy to lose someone, it somehow feels more comprehensible when it occurs after a long period of illness or if the person was of great age. As such, in the case of my father’s friend it did, for a time, not feel real. Even as his coffin was carried into the church and placed in the chancel, the fact he had died seemed wholly unfeasible.
Was this feeling down to shock or was it a subconscious denial of my own mortality? Do we all secretly fool ourselves into believing it will never happen to us or those around us? Do we find these experiences uncomfortable as they inevitably create a chink in our self-created armour, providing evidence to the contrary of the lies we tell ourselves?
During the service, I was also acutely aware of an atmosphere of self-imposed restraint. Not only within myself but with those around me. I could sense the internal battles being waged, where each of us fought to remain strong and not to cry. But why do we try to fight back the tears? Do we worry we were not close enough to the person to show grief, do we worry that we might show it disproportionately? Is it embarrassment at such a public show of emotion and vulnerability? Or is it simply that we feel we need to be strong for those around us, in this case, my father?
Undoubtedly losses, even if they are not directly our own, highlight thoughts we would rather not entertain. It is hard to comprehend that we will, at some point, find ourselves in the position of the bereaved and ultimately one day become the one being grieved for. Do we detach death from our lives for our own sanity, as is it harder to enjoy life with thoughts of death looming over us?
I am a big advocate of etiquette. Not only does adhering to it show respect for others, but it also gives us a sense of security, setting out a clear set of rules of how to behave and act. Whilst a somewhat trivial example, I liken it to experiences of ambiguous dress codes. For some of us, ambiguity gives rise to panic, as we fear unintentionally offending or interpreting something the wrong way. When things are spelt out clearly or we have a set of accepted rules to guide us, we invariably find confidence by knowing we are doing the right thing.
Whilst a lot of the old-fashioned etiquette and customs around death are no longer observed as diligently as they once were, many still linger on in our psyche. On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, I remember my aunty fretting to my mother about what to do with the curtains. Years ago, everyone on the street would have shown their respect for the deceased and their family by leaving the curtains at the front of their houses closed. In fact, that day the older residents of the road had done so, but many others had not. The symbolism of this small act had obviously been lost somewhere between the generations, resulting in an uncertainty of the status quo. Closing the curtains was a ritual I had not been aware of until that moment and it made me wonder why so much importance was being placed on preserving a seemingly insignificant tradition? In hindsight, I can see it goes back to the comfort we find in etiquette. By having a set of rules, we can make sure that things are done the correct way, and that respect is being shown to the deceased.
These traditions can also give us a sense of purpose. As my grandmother lay in her hospital bed, we had all known that it would just be a matter of time before she passed. We had all felt rather helpless as we sat by her bedside, praying she would take comfort in our presence. After she had gone, there was still an unwavering urge to do right by her and show our respect. For my family, the simple act of closing the curtains was a small way of fulfilling this desire.
Reflecting on these experiences has made me a question not only my own attitude to death but that of those around me. Why do we feel the way we do about dying? Is it our experiences, beliefs, or even jobs that shape our attitude? Or is it a combination of all three or more? In my next blog, I will ask myself the questions we often shy away from and try to discover more about how the omnipresence of death shapes all our lives.
How do you feel about the traditions and etiquette surrounding death? Do you think these traditions are outdated and no longer have a place in the modern world, or do you take comfort from them? – please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
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Also, if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can receive advice and support from Cruse Bereavement Care. Cruse is a wonderful nationwide charity who offers support, advice and information to children, young people and adults when someone dies. www.cruse.org.uk