hen I lived in Minnesota, I belonged to an award-winning chorus. We staged three major productions a year, and performed at smaller venues in various capacities, as well. The chorus was a marvelous experience overall. Curiously, it was also one of the most socioeconomically diverse groups I had belonged to since high school.
For one of our auxiliary performances, we were told to dress like we were “going to a funeral.” I asked what that entailed, and was met with guffaws and dropped jaws.
I informed them that not everyone dresses for a funeral the same way. In my lower-class Appalachian family, you do not dress to the nines. You wear nice jeans, maybe slacks. You wear a polo, maybe a button-down, maybe with a tie. Probably not a jacket. Definitely not a suit.
If this surprises you, let me explain how it works. Where I’m from, if you dress up for a funeral, you are attracting attention away from the deceased, and showing off to other funeral-goers who may not be able to afford nice clothing. Thus, a three-piece suit is one of the most disrespectful ways to treat the departed.
It’s so easy for us to get caught in our limited experience, and not consider just how broad and deep is the human experience. Cultural norms can change just by crossing a border, or crossing a street. Listening, empathy, the benefit of the doubt: essential tools for embracing what it means to be human.
Whittier Strong is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He presently serves as nonfiction editor for Permafrost. His work has been published in The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, Apogee, Jonathan, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, and elsewhere. A native of Indiana, he earned his BA in creative writing from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.