Herbert Fielding, 91-year-old, doesn't look retired. When I meet him, he's sitting in his dark-paneled office at the Fielding Home for Funerals, the family business where he's spent the last 70 years or so working, dressed to the nines in a tan suit with a pale striped tie. The only hint that he might be older than he looks — because he doesn't look 91 — is an oxygen tube that he wears as nonchalantly as the gold ring on his right hand.
"I'm technically retired," he tells me once I've sat down. The Fielding Home for Funerals is housed in an old Charleston single, complete with narrow, steep stairs, small rooms, and windows overlooking the street so you can watch who's coming and going. It has a settled, contented air, almost like it's in its own little universe, and in a way, it is.
Founded 102 years ago, the funeral home is where Fielding has worked nearly his whole life. The evidence of that long history is on his office walls — photographs and collages and newspaper clippings from the past decades are crowded together, almost too many to fit. It's obviously a room in which he feels at home, and where he still comes nearly every day, even though his youngest son, Freddie, is now the funeral director and embalmer. "I work for him now," Fielding says with a smile, pointing to his son who's in the office too. Freddie scoffs and rolls his eyes good-naturedly.
I try to broach the subject that I'm here to talk about — fashion and style — but to tell the truth, I'm a little embarrassed. Although Fielding's quite friendly, I get the feeling from his stoic demeanor and to-the-point speaking style, that he's sort of past the point where he wants to sit in a room with a stranger answering superficial questions about something like personal style. So I go back to the retirement thing.
"Do you ever plan on actually retiring?" I ask him.
"I plan on taking a lot more time off," he says.
"What do you want to do with that time?"
"Travel," he answers.
"Any place in particular?"
"In this country. I'd like to go up north."
We talk about Niagara Falls, which he visited about 10 years ago, and the Grand Canyon, which he'd like to see as well. It appears he's got a very active retirement planned, once he can pry himself away from the business. When we finally move onto fashion, he tells me that his favorite place to shop is Berlin's. At 130 years old, the menswear shop on King Street has an even longer history than Fielding's business. "You used to go to Lourie's in Columbia a lot too," Freddie says to him, referencing an upscale clothing shop that closed about 10 years ago. "Oh yeah, that's right," Fielding agrees.
Occupation: Retired funeral director and embalmer
My style: Dignified
Signature Accessory: At his age? Please.
Favorite Place to Shop: Berlin's for Men
Trend to Avoid: Can't think of one.
Favorite Style Decade: Doesn't matter — as long as the suits looked good.
"What do you wear when you're at home?" I ask.
Freddie jumps in here, saying his dad is like Oliver Wendell Douglas of Green Acres. In other words, he wears a suit every day.
"Any T-shirts?" I ask.
"Sure," Fielding tells me. "A couple of T-shirts." After wearing suits every day for so long, he's just more comfortable in them.
I figure that's about all the fashion information I'm going to get, which honestly suits me fine. So I start asking him about his business.
Fielding is either the second or third generation of his family to run the funeral home. According to Fielding, he's the second, having taken the business over from his father who started it. Freddie, however, says Fielding is the third, since Fielding's grandmother gave Fielding's father the money to start the funeral home, and she worked there for a time as well.
Fielding starts telling me that he began learning embalming as a child, helping his dad. It's very Six Feet Under. "In the old days, when the morgue was right downstairs, I used to sit on a high stool and help pump the water used to embalm," he says.
When Freddie embalms someone now, he uses an embalming machine — I didn't ask for too many details, but from what I understand you put the fluids you're going to use into the machine, press a button, and the process starts.
The Fieldings are not terribly forthcoming with the daily ins and outs of their work, other than to say that they've served generations of Charleston families. So we chat about other things, and eventually we end up on the subject of Fielding's time in Europe, when he was serving during World War II. "That was a long time ago," he says. "I spent three years in Europe. France, Germany, Spain. I went to Glasgow University for a time."
He actually attended the Sorbonne first, he says, but the language barrier was a little much. "They spoke all French, of course, and that was too hard for me."
"Did you speak any French?" I ask him.
"I spoke a little. So then I applied to Glasgow University, and I got in, and I got a certificate in business from there."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Oh yeah, I enjoyed it!" he answers with a big smile. This is the most animated he's been in the entire interview. Then he tells me that he was thinking of contracting, staying in the Army, but he decided to come back home and go to embalming school.
"Are you glad that you did? That you came back?"
He replies, "Yes," as stoic as ever.