Despite vehement efforts to kill them off, rituals connected with death keep coming back. They may not look as good, but they are recognizable.
Long ago, Miss Manners noticed that sunglasses had replaced black veils for the job of protecting grieving widows from scrutiny. Then mounds of teddy bears and balloons became impermanent substitutes for mausoleums and shrines. Sympathy cards had already overwhelmed personally written condolence letters, but handwritten notes reappeared on those mounds, addressed to the deceased.
And now mourning clothes and souvenirs are back. Sort of.
The idea of wearing one's bereavement on one's sleeve was one of the reasons for the 20th-century revolt against Victorian death customs. At least for gentlemen it was on the sleeve, in the form of a black band. For ladies it was head to toe.
The rules were strict. Black with a shiny surface, such as satin, was considered too racy. Jewelry had to be black, white or colorless, although those left well-off made the successful claim that pearls and diamonds fit the definition. This dreary palette was mandated for a year or more, depending on the relationship to the deceased, before touches of tepid color -- gray, white, lavender -- were permitted to edge in.
Of course such strictures could not survive in the modern era. What self-respecting lady would want to wear nothing but black, day after day?
Well, yes, New Yorkers, teenagers, theater people, gang members and wedding guests. Oh, and all those people in the fashion business, even while they are in the very act of decreeing citrus yellow or bitter tangerine to be the color of the season.
It is only in regard to going to funerals that people complain that they have nothing black to wear. And that it would be too expensive for them to buy something for one occasion, as they do for weddings, proms, charity balls and cruises.
This attitude arose in the mid-20th century, as funerals were being denigrated as depressing and pointless by people who had noticed that those being honored were too dead to enjoy them. For a while, it was not uncommon for people to declare in advance that they wanted no such ceremonies to be held for them. More recently, as funerals became occasions for friends to tell funny stories, some potential subjects have asked to have them held early so they might listen.
It took terrorism and war to make funerals mournful again.
Yet all along, avoidance, cynicism and revolt did not quell the deeply human need to mourn. Furthermore, the show of mourning, maligned as superficial, serves important purposes. Mourning clothes kept acquaintances from intruding on the mourners' sensibilities. With any luck, they might now serve to discourage strangers from calling out, "Smile!"
Trinkets directly connected with the deceased give the bereaved the comfort of feeling that person's continuing presence. Victorian mourning jewelry used portraits or hair in brooches, rings, lockets and bracelets.
The idea of mourning clothes and mementoes is coming back now as -- well, what do you expect? T-shirts, of course. They are being ordered with pictures, messages, praise and promises of eternal love.
No, they are not as subtle as black clothes and treasured curls. But Miss Manners hopes that they are not only comforting to the wearer but also a reminder to others to be gentle.
Dear Miss Manners:
I have been a college professor for 19 years. In that time I've had many wonderful students. On occasion I'll run into some alumni, either in town or at a college function. My problem is that while I may remember their face, or even more details about them, I can't always remember their name.
What is the polite way to deal with this? When faced with these situations I use a generic "Hi there, good to see you" greeting. But I'm afraid they realize I can't recall their name.
Allow Miss Manners to congratulate you for teaching at a college where the classes are small enough to allow the professors to learn their current students' names. And for being in a profession where the inability to master the mechanics of life is considered charming. Should you feel that the student senses your inability to use his name, you need only ask for it by confessing, "You remember how absent-minded I am."
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
© 2005, Judith Martin