Clothes Make the Man

“And you’ll need to bring whatever you want him to be buried in,” concluded the funeral director as he stood to bid me and my mother goodbye. In that instant I saw panic on my mother’s tear-stained face. She was of the school that believed dead people should go out looking grand, but her bachelor brother, my dear Uncle Bill, had never owned anything remotely grand in all his seventy-six years.

Uncle Bill was an unpretentious man, who had no use for fancy clothes. He liked to go fishing, work in his garden or hike in the woods and his dull durable wardrobe suited all such activities. Until his final years, he wore that functional nondescript garb commonly known as “work clothes,” heavy cotton khaki matching pants and shirt, the sort of thing repairmen wear. His pigeon-toed feet were shod in sturdy brown oxfords that never seemed to wear out, but when they did, they were replaced with the same style and color.

Only on the hottest summer days would he be seen (and only in his own backyard) wearing a sleeveless undershirt with the aforementioned work pants and shoes. His hair was the color of ginger and his fair, freckled skin burned to a crisp if exposed to the sun for very long, which may be why the red ball cap was also a wardrobe staple. He was never without the red cap. Like the shoes, it must have worn out and been replaced over the years, but it was always the same style, and it was always red. His clothes reflected the simple uncomplicated man he was.

When his health declined and his sight failed, my mother took charge. Frugal to a fault, she began enhancing her brother’s closet with selections chosen from the church ragbag. These were clothes the church ladies’ sewing group transformed into garish lap robes, which they presented with hubris to helpless nursing home residents. Digging through the donated wares my mother saw those slinky disco shirts and plaid golf pants as her brother’s new wardrobe.

“This material feels funny,” Uncle Bill complained fingering the front of a shirt or rubbing a hand along his thigh.

“It doesn’t wrinkle, and it looks very nice,” she assured him and thus a colorful, but past-its-prime wardrobe replaced the familiar apparel in Uncle Bill’s closet. During this transition, although he could no longer see, the tired old red cap stayed in place. He said it soothed his watery eye and refused to part with it despite my mother’s pleas.

“Oh, that cap doesn’t go with your shirt . . . ” she’d argue, but Uncle Bill was adamant. The cap stayed. Given free rein she would have decked him out in a porkpie or some other sporty chapeau.

So there he sat, unknowingly decked out in yellow plaid polyester pants that rode two inches above his shoes, a shiny shirt printed with lightning bolts and if the weather happened to be chilly, a striped Perry Como sweater. Dear plain old Uncle Bill with his cloudy unseeing eyes quietly morphed into an uncomplaining, unknowing clown. It was a blessing when he died.

“What are we gonna bury Bill in?” my frenzied mother worried aloud as we drove away from the funeral parlor. At the very least, going away clothes meant a suit, and she hadn’t thought far enough ahead to salvage one from the church rag bag.

A desperate search in the recesses of his closet yielded a vintage brown serge suit he’d owned since returning from the war in 1946, back when he was a strapping young man. Now he was a shriveled hint of that person, but funeral directors are adept at alterations, so my mother pronounced half the problem solved.

Although there were plenty in his closet, disco shirts just didn’t seem to go with the brown serge. Even my parsimonious mother had to admit that, but the notion of buying a new shirt that would only be worn once was simply unthinkable.

Hearing of the dilemma, a friend offered one of his expensive pale-blue dress shirts and an elegant silk tie to go with it, and the incongruous going away costume was delivered to the funeral home.

When at last the big day arrived, the person in the satin-lined casket bore little resemblance to my dear uncle. The art director of the home had parted and pomaded his thin fluff of faded pink hair and asked me if I’d like him to trim my uncle’s wiry eyebrows that stuck out like awnings. “No, thank you,” I muttered, staring in disbelief at the oddly-dressed old man in the mahogany box.

My uncle couldn’t have tied that Windsor knot if his life had depended upon it. The old suit with its big lapels had been tucked and pinned to fit his frail form, but it still looked as if it had been stolen from Edward G. Robinson. And I knew that inside the collar of that pale-blue shirt, the laundry had marked another man’s name. Uncle Bill was a stunning stranger.

Soon neighbors and friends began filing into the flower-filled room. As they approached, the casket their astonished faces expressed what they were too polite to say. This was not the Bill they knew and loved! Mercifully, not one person uttered those absurd remarks about him looking like he “was sleeping” or more ridiculously, that he looked “natural.” They just stared.

If anyone noticed when I slipped from the room, it really didn’t matter; I could not allow my dear uncle to leave this world looking like he’d soon me meeting Bette Davis for drinks. Back at the house, his faded red cap still lay next to the recliner chair where he was sitting when he drew his last breath. I stuffed the cap in my pocket and hurried back to the funeral home.

It’s not easy to lift a dead person’s head, like trying to lift a car, but as the room full of his friends watched, I hoisted my poor uncle’s head from the satin pillow and pulled the cap down to just the angle he’d always worn it. It covered the silly hairdo the funeral director had imposed and shielded his combed bushy eyebrows.

“Now that’s our Bill,” said someone. “That’s the Bill we knew,” others agreed as they returned to the casket to bid their final goodbyes. My mother feigned shock, but I knew that despite her tears, she was comforted to see her brother’s familiar face. Who said clothes don’t make the man?

I'm a freelance writer for many magazines focused on sustainable agriculture and environmental issues, but like most writers, I'm also plugging away at a memoir entitled Leaving Fifth Street. I live alone on a small early-19th century farm with several dogs, cats, chickens and donkeys.

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18 comments on “Clothes Make the Man

  1. My condolences to you and your mother for your loss. I am touched by your story. Making sure your Uncle was buried with his red cap on was a loving gesture. I could feel your love for him. May your Uncle Bill R.I.P. I can feel your heart in the story you have written. It’s a very respectful tribute from an Uncle’s niece who writes well.

  2. My sincerest condolences for the loss of your uncle. Realizing that the situation was not humorous and not making light of his death, I laughed out loud at the picture you painted – especially the effort you made to put your uncle’s beloved red ball cap on his head. I’m sure he was smiling down from Heaven at that moment in time!

  3. Love it Karen! Thanks so much for sharing. This reminds me of my Dad’s funeral, when I picked out his favorite jacket< a loud plaid polyester, that he had probably gotten at the Salvation Army resale shop. The funeral director chuckled and said, "that is so Curt!"

  4. To your Uncle it didn’t make much difference, but to those left behind, the red cap turned the stranger into a beloved friend/family member. It was a wonderful gesture. Well expressed feelings.

  5. I too had an Uncle Bill he had a dog named Useless great memories may both Bills R.I.P. Thanks for your story!

  6. Great, and gentle pacing to this outrageous (and very amusing) slice of life.
    May your uncle rest peacefully… oblivious to the fact that clothes make the man but women always know best… : )

  7. I really enjoyed this story. Don’t we all have a favorite red ball cap of sorts , we hope will accompany us when the time comes!

  8. I loved this story! Uncle Bill was a man after my own heart. I’m sure he appreciated the red cap being added.

  9. Karen, loved this story. Such a beautiful and sad description of aging from an independent personality to someone else’s personality at least visually. Perfect “save” in the end. My mom was a gardener. Her favorite bouquet were wildflowers in a mason jar. So at her funeral, I showed up at the last minute with those wildflowers in a mason jar. The funeral director looked at me a bit oddly, then his partner (obviously raised by a gardener) pushed him aside, went and got a pedestal so this perfect floral statement could go right by mom’s casket. Then everyone opened up. Familiarity brings comfort and the stories flowed.

  10. My condolences for you loss, Karen. The description of your Uncle Bill’s attire before he passed away was very vivid, as was the details of after the art director at the funeral home had completed his look. In the end you made the right decision to place the old red cap on your Uncle Bill’s head. A perfect ending to the story. Thank you for sharing it.

  11. Ohhhh…I could hug you. You did what needed to be done. You accepted him for the person, everyone else loved and knew. That took courage but I was right there with you, praying that you had the courage to make it right!
    You did!!!

  12. My favorite line, “…but the notion of buying a new shirt that would only be worn once was simply unthinkable.” I can almost see your mother dismissing the very idea of a new shirt as idiotic!
    I kept visualizing my Aunt Anna and Uncle Stanley as I read this story. The scenario of a long-suffering man and a strong woman calling the shots is familiar but, like Uncle Stanley, (with a wink and a nudge), your uncle Bill held out and managed to keep a piece of himself intact.
    I think your story painted a beautiful and layered picture of a difficult time in your life that became manageable through humor and diplomacy. Thanks for sharing it!

  13. Beautiful memoir, well told. My sister and I buried our dad (a WWII POW survivor) with his Purple Heart medal. The war defined his life and was part of every day afterwards. Thanks for sharing this.