IT'S WONDERFUL how death transforms the spirit, so that everyone who is deceased becomes a self-effacing promoter of the comfort of the living.
Or so one would assume from hearing surviving friends and relations saying things like "He would have wanted me to go out and enjoy myself on a day like this." "She would have preferred that I go to the football game instead of being glum at her funeral service," and "He would have told us to go ahead with our festival and not cancel it on his account."
Nonsense. Miss Manners' knowledge of human emotions tells her that he would have wanted you to be too overcome with grief to be capable of enjoying anything, and she would have wanted national mourning. Putting sentiments in the mouths of others is always offensive, but Miss Manners finds it particularly so in the case of those who are not around to speak for themselves.
When a person dies, those who cared about him or her have the obligations of attending the funeral service and family gathering afterwards, and of offering assistance, writing letters and paying condolence visits to the immediate family.
The most graceful way of getting through all of these is to search one's mind until one has a supply of anecdotes about the dead person that are both favorable and believable. Foibles that can be told with admiration are particularly effective.
These stories are crucial at a funeral in which eulogies are delivered by friends. Such services can be quite moving -- and anything is better than a funeral at which the clergyman says, "I didn't have the privilege of knowing Cookie Sturgis, but I feel as if I did. She was someone who had a rare zest and love for life..."
They are also the proper conversation for wakes, post-funeral gatherings and other condolence visits, all of which should be bittersweet events in which one reminsces about the dead while consuming his liquor supply. Additional presents of liquor, along with the traditional offering of cooked food to the bereaved, are a way of keeping such events going.
This is important to the immediate family. And while you may not assume that the deceased is preoccupied with the convenience of his friends and their social calendars, you must act on the idea that he would have been concerned with the emotional welfare of his family.
The formalities connected with death are designed with this in mind.
Honest mourning, Miss Manners has observed, is a matter for both laughter and tears; gloom unrelieved by happy memories is suspicious. Because this mixture of sudden hilarity and equally sudden depression is peculiar and unpredictable, it is customary for the recently bereaved not to attend ordinary social events.
This does not mean that they do not need, perhaps acutely, the company of others, and the services, gatherings and visits and letters serve this purpose, along with requiring much activity -- arranging services, notifying people, accepting condolences, responding to letters -- that helps distract the grief-stricken and postpones their dealing with the void left by the death.
It is a mistake to think that the living are too grief-stricken to notice who fulfills these obligations and who doesn't. So you must inconvenience yourself, if you wish to honor someone who has died. Believe Miss Manners -- he would have wanted it that way.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. We are vacationing in Florida this winter, and my 7-year-old daughter wants a bikini. Many of her friends wear two-piece suits, but I think it's in poor taste at their age. Would you settle this for us?
A: Poor taste is displaying one's bosom. Displaying one's lack of it is poor judgment.
Q: The girl I plan to marry and I both love old Hollywood musical comedies and romance movies, and I would like to surprise her by "popping the question" on my knees and pulling a boxed engagement ring out of my pocket. I know it's corny, but I think she'll love it. My sister says she doesn't think girls really like that kind of thing and ought to be allowed to select the ring themselves. But to tell you the truth, I can't spend too much on the ring, and the idea of letting her loose in a jewelry store to buy whatever she likes scares me. Is the surprise a good idea, or isn't it?
A: The surprise is lovely, provided it is she who is surprised by the question and not you who are surprised by the answer. There are two things you should know in order to prevent your being surprised: whether the jeweler will take the ring back, and whether the intended intends to take you.
Q: What happens when you go tea dancing?
A: None of your business.
Q: I carry a big black umbrella, even if it's just a 30 percent chance of rain, May I ask a young lady who is a stranger to me to share its protection?
This morning, I was waiting for a bus in comparative comfort, my umbrella protecting me from the downpour, and noticed an attractive young woman getting soaked. Her hair was getting wet, although it didn't look stringy, the way some women's hair does in the rain.
I have often seen her at my bus stop, although we have never spoken, and I don't even know her name. Could I have asked her to get under my umbrella without seeming insulting?
A: Certainly. Consideration for those less fortunate than you is always proper, although it would be more convincing if you stopped babbling about how attractive she is. In order not to give Good Samaritanism a bad name, Miss Manners asks you to allow her two or three rainy days of unmolested protection before making your attack.
Q: The doctor and I have a pleasant, bantering relationship, and I think I would enjoy seeing him socially. Is it all right for me to extend a dinner invitation to him?
A: Only if you do so with your clothes on.
Q: There was a terrible fire in our neighborhood which, thank God, did not spread to our house, but the people three doors down had extensive damages. I mean their house was practically just a shell when it was over. Well, they've rebuilt, and are moving back in, with all new furniture -- they were insured -- next month. In a sense, they are starting out with a new household, still lacking a number of things, and are moving in afresh, even though they were our neighbors for eight years. Do you think it would be nice if we gave them a housewarming party?
A: Yes, but would you please think of another name for it?
Q: I hate the feeling of wearing a ring, and never wore the class ring I was pressured into buying. Now my fiance wants me to wear a wedding ring. I know it will drive me crazy if I do. I could accept it, of course, and then not wear it, but I'm afraid that would be a worse hassle eventually than the one we're having now. Her argument is how are other women going to know I'm married if I don't wear a ring?
A: You might shout out the information while fighting desperately to save yourself from their determined advances, if this, as her argument suggests, is a major problem in your life. However, if you two can't find something more important than this to fight over now, perhaps you should not be getting married.
Q: A well-dressed, middle-aged man sitting next to me in an airplane asked me if I were "a career girl." I know what this means, and I consider it an insult. It means am I some young chick busying herself by playing at working while waiting to get married -- and maybe interested in some "fun" with the likes of him in the meantime. I have a "career," of course, if that means that I work for a living like everyone else -- but you don't go around asking strangers if they have jobs. I just said "No!" curtly and turned away from him, but I'm still mad. What should I have said?
A: Miss Manners hesitates to assume evil intent in matters where differences of age may make significant semantic differences. You should merely have asked him, in turn, if he were a career boy. $ 30: Illustration, no caption