Monica Doumit: No, Magda, not even close, dear

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Wearing modest clothing to a funeral is partly a sign of grief, and also a way of making sure that you don’t draw any attention to yourself, away from the mourners and the mourned. Photo: unsplash.com
Wearing modest clothing to a funeral is partly a sign of grief, and also a way of making sure that you don’t draw any attention to yourself, away from the mourners and the mourned. Photo: unsplash.com

A few years ago, the “funeral selfie” became a thing. Millennials – mainly – started to post photos of themselves at funerals to Instagram and other social networking sites.

Whether it was of their funeral outfit, them with the casket or at the gravesite, the idea was to capture an image that showed you were attending a funeral. There was even a dedicated ‘Selfies at Funerals’ page on Tumblr, on which people could share their funeral shots.

It caused a debate about the appropriateness of treating death as just another “event” to be showcased to friends; grieving just another experience to be collected.

Some psychologists and grief counsellors saw the merit in it. They thought the normalisation of funerals could assist in coping mechanisms around death and dying.

Others had a different view: while speaking more about death is indeed a positive thing, the “funeral selfie” was less about death and more just the latest manifestation of the “look at me” culture that sees nothing as sacred, instead turning everything into an opportunity to seek attention.

In my Lebanese, Maronite culture, we understood the principle of not drawing attention to yourself at a funeral, but it wasn’t usually spoken about in such philosophical terms.

Instead, the exhortation of “don’t wear red to a funeral” was drummed into you at an early age.

“For us, the style guide for “funeral chic” is frumpy and drab: wear all black, knees and shoulders covered, minimal make up and modest hair.”

Why red?

I’m not really sure, except that there was a view that it was a colour that draws attention to the wearer, and so was completely inappropriate at a funeral, or when visiting someone to offer condolences for a death.

Even those Australians of Lebanese heritage who, like myself, cannot speak Arabic, know the Arabic word for “red,” so serious was the transgression of wearing it at the wrong time.

For us, the style guide for “funeral chic” is frumpy and drab: wear all black, knees and shoulders covered, minimal make up and modest hair.

It’s partly a sign of grief, and also a way of making sure that you don’t draw any attention to yourself, away from the mourners and the mourned.

The norms for what to wear at funerals and when extending condolences were on my mind this week, when I saw Jenny Morrison, the wife of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, mocked on social media over a photo of her and the PM signing a condolence book to send to Queen Elizabeth II following the death of Prince Philip.

Instead of accepting the criticism that she commented on the photo out of context ... Szubanski doubled-down, suggesting that those who were unhappy with her comments were “Christian soldiers”. Photo: Eva Rinaldi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
Instead of accepting the criticism that she commented on the photo out of context … Szubanski doubled-down, suggesting that those who were unhappy with her comments were “Christian soldiers”. Photo: Eva Rinaldi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the images taken showed the Prime Minister seated at a single desk, signing the condolence book.

Standing behind him, and a couple of metres away, was his wife. She was wearing a simple black dress, her hair tied back in a ponytail, and her make up modestly done.

Of course, the Twitter mob went nuts, gobsmacked at the image of a woman standing in the background while her husband, the nation’s leader, signed a condolence book on behalf of those he leads.

Chief amongst the scoffers and the scorners was Magda Szubanski, who retweeted the photo, adding the comment: “I genuinely thought this was a photoshopped Handmaid’s Tale meme. But no. It’s 21st century Aussie life.”

Had Szubanski, or any of the many others criticising the image, bothered to view any of the other photos from that day, they would have seen a photo taken minutes later, of Jenny sitting at the desk adding her condolences, while the PM stood in the background.

Or the image of Governor-General David Hurley signing while his wife, Linda, stood behind.

“Even if you hate Christians and Christianity, you would be hard-pressed to say that we don’t do death well. In this instance, the ability of the Morrisons – who are people of faith – to show respect for the dead and those who grieve them, was clear.”

Instead of accepting the criticism that she commented on the photo out of context, and unfairly disparaged the PM and his wife, Szubanski doubled-down, suggesting that those who were unhappy with her comments were “Christian soldiers” and ranted about the infiltration of the “religious right” into Australian politics.

I’m not sure how we got from “maybe you should have looked at the photo in context” to a diatribe about Christianity, but I guess there is no bow too long to draw when it comes to blaming people of faith for things.

But if we are going to talk about “Christian soldiers” in this instance, let’s talk about what they have to offer.

Even if you hate Christians and Christianity, you would be hard-pressed to say that we don’t do death well. In this instance, the ability of the Morrisons – who are people of faith – to show respect for the dead and those who grieve them, was clear.

They had the good sense to know that even though they were signing the condolence book in front of a press pool, this moment was primarily not about them.

They knew better than to ask their media advisors to stage-manage the whole thing to within an inch of its life so that they had a photo worthy of the “selfies at funerals” Tumblr page. If only their Twitter critics could exercise the same level of self-restraint, and not make everything about them.

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