Sunday, January 07, 2007


When my grandfather died I took the train home from work and started making phone calls and pulling things out of closets and drawers and putting them haphazardly on the bed. Pony Express came by and started packing things for me. I kept apologizing for having too much stuff and she said, "When somebody dies you get to bring as many pairs of shoes as you want."

But then, not quite a month later, when I got the call to come see my grandmother I was housesitting and the brain can't even process that this is that call, not really, because it's just a month and you can't write something this foolish and ridiculous. So I ended up packing my dog, a black turtleneck, underwear, socks, one sweater, winter boots, jeans and that was about it. She died 24 hours later and I stayed the week and had to buy pants and shoes for the funeral. Aunt Rena convinced to me wear a sweater that Grammy had bought to wear at Christmas. It was red with black borders and black bows down the front, very Emily Gilmore, very Hartford, very lots of things...except me. I also carried Grammy's purse since I'd just packed everything in my New York purse, my backpack. It must have been her church purse because it had a dollar for the collection and a cloth handkerchief and an old church program in it.

That wasn't the last memorial service I went to that year. Not by a long shot. I've developed rules and plans and lists, disturbingly like Emily Gilmore, except that mine are all practical.

I was saying to my dad the other night that we really, neither of us, are at the age yet where we have to tweak our schedules to fit in all the memorial services of our friends and family. Except, if I'm honest, that's exactly what I had to do this week and it's what we did all year 6 years ago. As I hung up the phone with him I realized that my mind was already running through the list.

1. Black pants or cocktail dress, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Don't be caught in a backwater strip mall settling for a pair of high water gray slacks because you can't go in your jeans and that's all you packed. *As an aside, I did actually really love the shoes I bought that week and wore them relentlessly, even on the walk home on 9/11.

2. Small purse, preferably black.

3. Real, cloth handkerchief, at least one. One for you and, if you are supporting a more primary mourner, one for that person or persons.

*As an aside, little trick, in almost all situations you can find someone who could be construed to be more primary a mourner than you. You can find ways to support them and use this distance to get you through whatever awkward conversations, public speaking or meetings with wooden ministers that confront you. It will not, however, make any difference at all when you go home and are by yourself and are therefore the most primary mourner in that room.

4. Cough drops, I like orginal flavor Ricola. You want something mild so you don't stink of medicine but you need something so that you don't end up being that woman who coughed and cleared her throat through the whole service. Bring plenty. Share. You also don't want to sit next to the person who clears his or her throat through the whole service.

5. Pearls. Preferably all by themselves, no visible setting. At least earrings, ring and necklace optional. Understated a must. Exception to this rule is a situation wherein you have non-pearl jewelry that has significance to your relationship with the deceased.

6. Wrap, jacket, sweater or other means of keeping your teeth from chattering. Churches are cold and crying tends to deplete your resources.

7. Black shoes, widest heel possible, flat as you can stand given your outfit. There's a lot of standing around involved in memorials, often in grass, and you never get to set the schedule yourself so make sure your feet feel OK. Taking your shoes off and dancing on the bar at a wedding is a great story, taking your shoes off and dancing on the bar at a funeral is...well, not so much.

8. A watch. Don't be late. Ever.

9. Directions. Give yourself time to get lost. Even if you've been to that cemetary/church/funeral home/aunt's house a gazillion times you can still get lost. Ask me how I know.

10. Cash. If you don't get lost and if you leave too much time then you deserve a treat, a cocoa, a donut (powdered sugar not recommended), a candy bar and you want to make sure you have the money for it. Also tolls. And the collection plate if you get ambushed by that. Or I suppose valet parking, though I've never been confronted with that.

11. Pen and paper/business cards. You tend to see people you never see elsewhere. They tend to ask you weird stuff. Tell them to e-mail you later. Pen & paper is also useful if, at the last minute, you are asked to give some remarks and want to write something up.

12. Extra makeup. Don't put your face on and then leave the house. Put a little cover up, some mascara and lip stick in that small purse. I don't need to explain this one, do I?

That's it, I guess. There are variations, I suppose. Things that are specific to the occasion or to the location or the relationships but these are the basics. I may not have a lot of useful knowledge but I can pretty much guarantee that what useful knowledge I do have is weird.


  1. Wow. I suppose I should be grateful that I didn't know about 3/4 of that. Keep that here. I'll be back. Hopefully not soon.

  2. Anonymous7:58 AM

    Very, very useful information.

    My recent funeral experience taught me a few other things, too, that I'll add to your already very comprehensive list in the hopes that someone else can learn from them...

    As an addendum to your pearl jewelry comment, never wear diamond earrings to a funeral - or, if you do, make sure they have screw backs. There's a lot of hugging at funerals, and one of them is bound to come loose without your knowing it. Ask me how I know.

    Failing the cloth hanky, stop someplace and buy yourself a bunch of pocket packs of tissue. I had three when we went to April's services. I kept one for myself, gave one to my husband, and offered one to the woman two seats down. She seemed very grateful.

    Find the MOST waterproof mascara you possibly can. Talk to friends, ask your hairdresser - find out what can stand up to crying. Of just skip the mascara altogether - chances are you're going to end up looking like hell anyway, so why bother?

    I think you're right to mention that a lot of the decisions you make about attire will be based on your relationship to the deceased. I wore a green sweater and a black fleece skirt with little rosebuds all over it for April's services, and that felt exactly right. A somber business suit would have been wrong for who we were to each other.

    Thanks for this. I agree with JRH - it's a great resource to have.


  3. Anonymous8:12 PM

    You're a boundlessly thoughtful person, K. Really.