By Alison Crake, Past President of the National Association of Funeral Directors
On behalf of the NAFD, this week I have been asked to participate in radio interviews, including on BBC 5 Live and BBC Radio Tees (click here to listen to the interview), commenting on the views expressed by Sky presenter Colin Brazier, who has recently lost his wife, that it is unfair on bereaved children to wear bright colours to a funeral and treat it as a ‘celebration of life’.
It’s made me think hard about the changing nature of funerals in the UK today and on my own experience as a funeral director of some 38 years. It is also part of a wider discussion about children and bereavement that the NAFD is actively pursuing at present in partnership with bereavement charity Winston’s Wish.
Firstly, I would like to extend the NAFD’s deepest sympathies to Colin and his family. Although as funeral directors we support families in his position every day of the year, I cannot begin to imagine what he and his children are going through at this time. I fully appreciate his perspective and hope he and his family are being well supported at this terrible time.
The NAFD’s view, and my own, is that any decision about what happens at a funeral must be for each family to make, just as Colin has done, and must be based upon what is right for family members – including any children involved.
Funeral directors regularly see requests for colourful clothing at funerals, or for specific clothing to be worn – such as football shirts in memory of someone who was a fan of a particular team. This is part of a changing landscape in respect of funerals, with an increasing focus on making the funeral specific to the person that has died. This is something that has steadily increased since the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
When families do make a specific request such as this, it is often the case that it is something that has been decided before the funeral arrangements are made, sometimes with the involvement of the person who is dying, or other times as a result of discussions within families about the memories they have of the person they have lost. The funeral director is there to follow the wishes of the family, not direct them, and if asked to wear a particular colour tie, or to participate in a clothing choice, they will endeavour to make that happen to support the family.
In the majority of instances, families do not make any specific request regarding clothing – in which case the expectation would often be that mourners attending would wear darker clothing.
Wearing black is a tradition in Western culture that has pervaded for centuries and remains the default position. However, it is also worth noting that the colour black, whilst traditional, is only one symbol of mourning and isn’t necessarily where the true meaning and emotions of loss are found.
Children, who may be experiencing their first bereavement, have no frame of reference. They take their cue from their parents and family. If the emotions expressed during the funeral are genuine, why should the wearing of any particular colour change or lessen the impact of the loss on them?
Interestingly, in other cultures wearing of bright colours to mourn is traditional. For example:
- People in Eastern Asia wear white mourning clothes as a symbol of purity and rebirth.
- In South Africa, red has been adopted as a colour of mourning, representing the bloodshed suffered during the Apartheid era.
- Many devout Catholics in Brazil also wear purple, alongside black, while mourning the loss of a loved one. In fact, it can be considered disrespectful and unlucky to wear purple if you are not attending a funeral, as the colour has a sacred, devotional meaning to it.
- In Thailand, purple defines sorrow, and is reserved for widows to wear while mourning the death of their spouse, while other funeral mourners are required to wear black at the funeral.
For the NAFD, there’s a bigger issue behind this story, an issue we’re endeavouring to do something about. The issue is how we prepare for and support children after a loss; how we help them make sense of the ending of a life.
As funeral directors, we’re often asked about how far to involve children in funerals and how to support them when someone, or something, they love dies. Increasingly, there are fantastic resources out there to support children, at home or in school, after a bereavement, through the work of charities like Winston’s Wish and Child Bereavement UK, books by authors such as Elke Barber and others. But is this enough?
Arguably, by the time a child is dealing with their first bereavement, whenever that might be, we’ve missed the opportunity to give them an understanding and resources that will help them deal with loss in their life, resources that will also help them to be better equipped to face bereavement and their own eventual death, as adults?
I agree with my colleague Abi Pattenden, the current President of the NAFD, that by encouraging an open and curious learning environment about the end of life, in children, it could have a very positive impact both emotionally and practically when they reach adulthood in terms of how prepared they are for the end of their own life and that of those that they love.
As Chair of the Board of Education I am fully supporting Abi in her work to build a dialogue around this subject and partner with innovative organisations such as the bereavement charity Winston’s Wish.
Our hope as an Association is that, by normalising death as part of the curriculum – as part of the circle of life – for young people, and making it an open and gentle topic for discussion, it will be easier to support children who go on to become bereaved at an early age. The additional benefit is that, over time, it will help to create a generation of young people who have a better understanding of, and emotional vocabulary for, the end of life – which will support them when they become adults too.