Miss Manners: No dress code exists for deathbed vigil

September 5, 2013

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My father-in-law passed away due to complications he suffered as a result of a fall. He had been on life support and made the decision to be removed and placed in hospice care.

We knew the day and hour. The family gathered at his bedside to say their farewells. It was a moment fraught with much emotion, but even in the midst of it all, I couldn’t help noticing and wondering at the different apparel people chose to wear to this vigil.

I wore a dark-colored skirt and shirt. My husband wore jeans and a plain T-shirt. My mother-in-law had on dark dress slacks and a blouse. My brother-in-law had on a college T-shirt and shorts with sandals, and his wife also wore shorts with sandals. Their (grown) daughter had on a short summer dress.

I don’t know what is correct to wear at a time like this. I went with what I might wear to church, since it seemed like a time to be solemn and respectful. Was I correct?

Should I not be worrying about people’s clothes at a time like this? What is your advice on what to wear to a deathbed vigil?

GENTLE READER: These are very different questions, and Miss Manners will answer the most important one first.

No, you should not be criticizing what others were wearing at such a time. People do naturally focus on details then, oddly enough. It may be a way of distracting themselves from the awfulness of death. But please put this out of your mind. Many a family feud has started over minor issues in funeral behavior, and it is a poor legacy for the deceased.

That said, Miss Manners does believe in the symbolic value of clothing as a means of showing sorrow and respect at a funeral. And your husband’s T-shirt and jeans would not qualify, however much your church recognizes this as solemn dress.

Yet this was not a funeral. Your father-in-law was, at least when you arrived, still alive, perhaps even somewhat conscious. Your relatives probably did not think of dressing other than for another hospital visit. And if they did, they may have concluded that it would be jarring for him to see the family in mourning.

You asked what would be correct dress. Miss Manners has had to consult centuries-old paintings showing the deathbeds of saints, where those gathered around seem to be dressed pretty much in the ordinary style of their day. But then, those may not be typical cases.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Please confirm that if one is given a gift of earrings, it is bad taste to ask the gifter to get a size larger.

GENTLE READER: You are not talking about someone who has such huge ears that earrings keep disappearing inside them, so larger earrings are needed, Miss Manners gathers.

Even then, the rule would apply that it is rude to complain about a present and to expect the donor to change it, let alone upgrade it. So yes, it is in bad taste to ask for another helping of carats.

New Miss Manners columns are posted Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on www.washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com.

, by Judith Martin

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