Best Dressed Funeral Director

Jun 6, 2016
Best Dressed Funeral Director As a kid I remember watching my dad negotiate the complex daily ritual of ‘which tie goes with which shirt’ as he got dressed for work. I’ve been spared because, like many funeral directors, I avoid the daily tussle with colour altogether through a dogged attachment to the partly traditional, partly uniform combination of white shirt, black tie, striped trousers and black jacket. But having said that, I’ll admit to being heartily sick of dressing in black all the time. Yes, it saves a lot of messing about getting changed before & after funerals, but I’ve got fed up of looking like an undertaker when I’m not out on ceremonial duty.   

Strangely though, when I am out ‘conducting’ it doesn’t even cross my mind that I’m dressed up like a turkey dinner. The Victorian-style, open-fronted frock coat and top hat are as natural to me as jeans and a casual shirt are. However, it was always drummed into me by my original formal wear supplier, a diminutive but redoubtable lady from the West Midlands, that to carry off the look properly a funeral director should pro-actively wear his/her outfit and not let their outfit wear them. She was absolutely right. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen fellow funeral director’s self-consciously sauntering up the crematorium drive with sleeves down over their knuckles and trousers wrinkled round their ankles like a pair of legwarmers from an episode of ‘Fame’. 

The whole faux-Victoriana thing isn’t so much a ‘look at me’ exercise as much as it is about making a statement and saying to onlookers: ‘Stop what you’re doing for a second and acknowledge that something significant is going on. I’m not dressed like this for the fun of it. Someone’s died and someone’s mourning as a result. It doesn’t matter who; just show some consideration and respect because one day you’ll be in the same situation’. Indeed, for all that people claim to dislike the black-clad formality of funerals, a great many of them genuinely appreciate having the funeral director don his or her top hat and walk out in front of the cortege (‘paging’ is the proper term). It’s a simple gesture but it’s one that families secretly value, especially when it slows the traffic down for a few moments and makes their loved one’s passing feel that little bit more important.   

But the moment will be robbed of all gravitas and any chance of capturing the hearts and minds of onlookers if the funeral director doesn’t demonstrate the requisite sense of moment by standing up straight, pulling their shoulders back and striding out in a purposeful, dignified manner. It’s not about showing off, but it is about putting on a show. If the hems of your trousers are concertina-ed around your ankles or your coat sleeves are swinging about in the breeze like a pair of airfield wind socks you’re just going to look like a scruffy oik and lower the tone.   

All that’s required is the counsel of a reputable funeral wear supplier. It doesn’t matter whether, like me, a funeral director favours the open-fronted frock coat or if they’re more inclined towards a straightforward tailcoat. Likewise, whilst I regard the ‘B stripe’ as the gold standard for trousers or skirts, I can cope with seeing someone wearing an ‘A’ or ‘C’ stripe. All that really matters is the application of a properly-operated tape measure beforehand. Everything else is matter of individual style and taste.   

Unfortunately it’s no longer enough just to have well fitting clothes. There’s an unwelcome modern trend towards corporate embellishments on funeral clothing. If we’re to carry on wearing Victorian-style clothing we should stick to black. Coats and jackets with corporate-coloured trim, or worse still coloured waistcoats, all look horribly commercial and extremely naff. Lady funeral directors need to choose carefully too. There’s plenty of elegant funeral wear specially designed for lady funeral director’s and there’s no excuse for just wearing what the men wear and then adding a pair of heels. I once saw a young lady funeral director sporting a lady’s-style top hat that completely failed to hide her bright red dyed hair, a tailcoat paired up with pinstripe skirt that barely reached her knees, a school girlish pair of 250 denier black woollen tights and six inch killer stilettos. The elderly vicar thought that little ensemble was wonderful but everyone else thought she looked like a tramp.   

Meanwhile I’m wondering whether to start wearing a less funereal grey suit and coloured tie when I’m not out on funerals. One thing’s for certain though. I wouldn’t be seen dead in a double-breasted suit. Those dreadful items of tailoring are the sole preserve of spivs, ne’re-do-wells and those who make regular court appearances. It would be awful. People would start thinking I’m an estate agent…

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.  

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”

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