What sort of thing do you wear to a funeral?

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The Independent Culture
I HAD a charcoal-grey suit, a crisp white shirt, a black tie and black shoes. I had everything. I even had black socks. I put it all in a suitcase, neatly folded, and caught the train. Then I got a taxi to my grandparents' house. I was late for dinner, but it didn't really matter. I went upstairs and took my suit out of the suitcase and hung it on a hanger; I put the black socks on the bed, arranged the shoes neatly, went downstairs. Then everybody sat around for a few hours in a strange, muted frenzy. My whole family was there; mother, father, brother, grandmother. We were in the dining room. My grandfather was in the sitting room, in a coffin.

My brother had nothing to wear. He was 20, a student, meticulously disarranged, with Doc Martens and drainpipe jeans. I thought of my clothes upstairs. They were perfect. Perhaps they were too perfect; nobody, I had noticed, seemed to know how to dress at funerals any more. What was the idea? To respect the dead a little less? To be more individualistic? No, the idea was to dress gloomily, but not shabbily - women wore big dark shapeless frocks they hadn't worn for years, not realising how bad they looked until the morning of the funeral. Men often had such bad suits they kept their macs on, even in summer. Maybe it was an effect of the Seventies, when many men lost touch with suits altogether; maybe a whole generation mourned in wide lapels, smelling of mothballs. But they still wore collars and ties. My brother had nothing; I could see trouble looming.

My mother said: 'Cliff will lend you a suit. He's bringing a spare one. We thought of that.'

My brother said: 'What?'

'He's about the same height as you.'

'But . . . it might be flared.'

My mother looked at him. She was still calm. It was her father who had died. She said: 'It's only for a couple of hours. And it might not be flared anyway.'

My brother said: 'Why can't I just go like this?'

We spent the rest of the evening chatting, veering from morbid to cheerful. I went in to see the body. Then my brother went in to see the body. Then we went to bed. In the morning, my brother said: 'We could call Cliff. We could ask him about the suit.' I could see the problem deepening, taking on real dimensions. Nobody called Cliff. He would have already left anyway. The funeral was in the early afternoon.

'I'm not wearing it if it's flared. I'm just not wearing it.'

'It's your grandfather's funeral. It's for a couple of hours. Do it for him. Look smart for his sake.'

'I'll look hideous. He wouldn't have wanted me to look hideous.'

'Look. You're wearing the suit. You'll have to wear the suit. There isn't anything else.'

The morning wore on. I could hear my mother and brother downstairs. There were still a couple of hours before the funeral itself; an hour and a half before the undertaker came. I had an idea. Why not take my brother into town and try to find a suit in an Oxfam shop? We could easily make it back in time. Nothing to it. My mother was against it. Boy, was she against it. 'No]'

'I'm not wearing that suit]'

'You're not leaving this house]'

'I'm not wearing that suit]'

'Oh God] Oh God]'

It was like escaping from Colditz. People had already started to arrive; black ties were being handed round among the older men. We ran up the road and caught a bus into the centre of town. And then we realised: we didn't know the place at all. After half an hour, we found a dusty old charity shop and scoured the rails; nothing. Then we walked around a bit, looking in shop windows. We went into another charity shop. One suit was the right size, but it was mid-grey with horrible rounded lapels. We realised we were cutting it fine. The time had just belted by. In fact, we would need a lot of luck to make it. I thought of my perfect funeral clothes on their hanger.

We got back 20 minutes later, in time, in disgrace, with no suit. There were loads of cars outside the house.

'Put this on] Now]'

My brother took hold of the trousers and slid them off the hanger and looked at the cuffs. They were flared. The suit was light grey. It was his personal nightmare. He looked as if this, and not sometime the week before, was the moment he had learned of my grandfather's death. He shook his head. We were 10 minutes short of the undertaker's scheduled arrival. I went upstairs to put my suit on. I did the shirt up. I got the tie right first time, and undid it and did it again. The trousers hung just fine. I had worn the shoes only a couple of times. The shoes looked great. I went downstairs.

My brother was wearing black jeans, an old tweed jacket he'd found in the wardrobe, his Doc Martens and a shirt and tie; a typical student dog's breakfast. He was militantly satisfied with it. The funeral-goers were standing around drinking sherry. Then the undertaker came.

In the church, only men over 65 were dressed like me, the way my grandfather himself had dressed at funerals. I felt like a man out of time. Maybe I should have worn something less correct, less formally perfect. I could see the light suits, the macs. I looked at my brother. What he was wearing was horrible. But, right then, it looked properly funereal, an authentic product of the grief, the mismanagement of the day of a funeral. Like old-time mourners, he was wearing something he would not permit himself to wear on any other occasion. I would not have looked out of place in a nightclub.

Afterwards, he apologised to my mother. She was calmer. 'I think he would have wanted me to wear this,' he said. 'Rather than Cliff's suit.'

'Yes,' she said. Her mind was on other things.-

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