Many people assume that etiquette writers, not just Etiquetteer, believe that everything was better in the past than it is today. Etiquetteer is here to tell you "Not so!" Many old customs have fallen out of fashion because they became overdone and not particularly conducive to good human relations. Etiquetteer would now like to look at some of the "vices and virtues" of the past, both things that we can do without and those we would do well to bring back.
MOURNING AND MOURNING CLOTHES
Grief and sadness are common emotions when a loved one dies. Society has developed traditions and rituals to comfort the bereaved: letters of sympathy, offerings of food or flowers brought to the home, funerals and memorial services, and even mourning clothes. The latter, including armbands, memorial buttons or badges, black-bordered handkerchiefs, and of course the famous mourning veil, served two purposes: to show respect to the dead and also to warn others not to bring up sensitive subjects.
But the idea of having to wear all black for at least three years after the death of a spouse or be thought not to have loved him or her . . . well, it’s just silly. Enough people in the mental health profession have already shown how excessive mourning prevents people from resuming their daily lives. The sort-of cult of mourning in the 19th Century, complete with memorial illustrations, restrictions on where one might go and to whom one might speak there, could lead one to Distraction, and probably did.
Now Society has moved to the opposite end of the spectrum by denying grief altogether. We "celebrate the life" of the deceased instead of mourning the death, wear colors to actual funerals if we attend at all, and use the convenience of e-mail when the special effort of writing a letter is so much more appreciated by the bereaved. And black, now so fashionable, is no longer a signal of mourning. Etiquetteer has witnessed on more than one occasion one person joke with another "Wow, black! Who died?" only to hearexactly who the deceased was.
One of the innovations of which Etiquetteer heartily approves is the mourning button with the picture of the deceased on it. Frequently made in the 19th Century for public figures (Presidents Lincoln and Garfield come to mind), they are now more widely seen and more easily made than they were 150 years ago.
Etiquetteer would like to see a middle ground between these extremes: a service where one could acknowledge one’s sadness by mourning the death as well as "celebrating the life," wear mourning colors at least through the funeral (but not for an extended period unless the bereaved chooses to do so), and yet not be thought insensitive when one feels the need no longer to demonstrate mourning.
CALLING AND CALLING CARDS
"The old arbitrary Washington custom of calling has lapsed entirely, and I lay a wreath on its grave without regret . . . " said Ellen Maury Slayden as far back as 1918. The rules and regulations governing calling and leaving calling cards in the homes of friends and associates must have collapsed under their own complexity and inconvenience. Rules about who called on whom first, the time in which those calls had to be returned, members of the household for whom one (and/or one’s spouse) left cards and how many, even different messages to send by folding certain corners of the card, had to be rigidly obeyed or interpreted as slights or insults. Mrs. Slayden recorded in her journal getting a cold shoulder from someone new in town whose call she couldn’t return because she lived too far away. Not a satisfactory system at all, and rife with misunderstandings. At least it kept the engravers in business.
Now we have the Internet, which solves some of these problems, but creates new ones.
Etiquetteer loves a receiving line, let’s not be mistaken about that. But too much of a good thing can implode, and it’s no wonder to see this useful custom kicked to the curb. The first problem with a receiving line is having too many people in it. Etiquetteer’s beloved Ellen Maury Slayden recorded attending an afternoon reception in Washington where "there were twenty women in the receiving party ‘bunched,’ as we say in Texas, on one side of the room . . . " And many of us remember weddings with a receiving line of twelve or more people: bride, groom, four parents, and eight or so bridesmaids. This is overkill, to say the least!
The second, and perhaps more noticeable problem, is that they take a long time. And the only reason for this is the garrulousness of the people in it. A receiving line is no place for a conversation! You are not rude if you say only "How do you do," "Congratulations!" or "It’s so nice to see you again" and then pass to the next person. Really, it’s rude if you say more and hold up everyone behind you. The time for conversation is during the party. Thoughtful brides and grooms (or other guests of honor) circulate among the guests during the reception in order to talk more.
Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify <at> etiquetteer.com.