What Are Wakes For Anyway?

At one time, I didn’t think much of going to a wake. Who wants to file down some aisle and gaze at dead bodies? Bodies that, more than likely, were walking, speaking, breathing only a few days ago. Maybe they’d been sick a while, maybe not. Gone now, though. So, why put yourself through the trouble and the grief of seeing them lifeless? What’s the purpose of gathering at a wake? What good does it do?

Yes, until the death of my parents, I never understood the purpose of a wake, or the party like receptions after a funeral. Seemed so insensitive, even disrespectful to be having fun and laughing when someone had just taken up residence in a box or an urn.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, my sisters and my brother and I were among those needing to find a reason to keep laughing and living. And I got to know what all the fuss was about. Survival. Just like life insurance–wakes and receptions after the funeral are so the survivors can continue to survive. These two rituals help close one chapter of your book of life and open a new one. Properly planned and executed, they can help ease the transition from one to the other.

The single most important thing in planning a wake, in my opinion, is scheduling enough time. Most families hold a two-hour session in the afternoon and another in the evening. Very wise. We were not. Shame on us, but we didn’t think very many people would turn out for it, so we booked only the evening session.

Two hours couldn’t accommodate all the family, friends, co-workers, former co-workers, and I don’t remember who, that showed up that night. All I recall is the crowd never thinned for a second those two hours. Seemed like the entire town and beyond streamed in to console us and pay their respects. The four of us were just . . . well . . . flabbergasted that that many people had been affected by our tragedy. That that many people would trouble themselves to come out and pay their respects to a couple we hadn’t realized had touched so many lives.

This is the second thing about wakes and receptions, and the reason to not only schedule enough time for them but make sure you attend them yourself— whether it’s for your own loved one or someone else’s.

If you’re inclined to cut yourself off from people, wanting to be alone at a time like this, reconsider. Please. This may well be exactly what is needed to get you through this bad time. To hear all the old stories again, and learn some new ones. To listen to people tell you how much they’d appreciated this or that about your loved one. All the stories, the hugs, and the tears help heal.

I am one who, in all other cases, feel stressed out in a crowd. Which paranoia became worse after my parents’ death. However, during this particular time, I wanted to be surrounded by everyone who could possibly be gathered into one space. I wanted to talk about

I am one who, in all other cases, feel stressed out in a crowd. Which paranoia became worse after my parents’ death. However, during this particular time, I wanted to be surrounded by everyone who could possibly be gathered into one space. I wanted to talk about what’d happened and all the good, bad, and indifferent times we’d been through growing up. Talk about the dreams realized and those that’d never quite come true. I wanted to hold onto everyone for as long as possible.

Of course, had everyone who attended my parents’ wake stayed the whole while, we’d’ve been sardines. But, for that brief period, the hurt eased. We weren’t alone.

Oh, sure, most of them no one had seen for decades. Which makes it all the more amazing to me, that they showed up. Although, the fact that my folks died within 30 hours of one another, with my dad—the “healthy” one going first— may have had a little to do with it. I want to to tell you, it felt very odd to have twin coffins present. Double the grief needed double the comfort. And I feel we got it that night.

If, however, the scenario is reversed, and you’re trying to decide whether or not you want to go to the trouble of finding a parking place and figuring out what to say once you reach the mourning family—- do the compassionate thing and show up.

We had the privilege of having hundreds show up. But what if no one did? What if no one cared enough to come tell us how much they shared in our grief; shared the old and the little-known stories with us. Shared the hugs and the tears.

The feeling of going it alone would have soared, I’ve no doubt. Feelings of abandonment, perhaps. Definitely, would’ve felt that no one cared—plain and simple. I know it because there were a few of my relatives who didn’t come. Didn’t show up at the house in the days before my mother died, nor on the day that my father did. Didn’t come to the wake and didn’t come for the funeral. Didn’t phone either, if memory serves me.

Didn’t want to remember them “that way”. Just couldn’t cope with this kind of tragedy.

Which made us wonder how they’d handle it themselves whenever it came to be time for them to have to do it. I’m fearful of the fact that, perhaps, they’ll hide then as well, and keep the whole thing private–shutting the rest of us out and denying us the closure we’ll need at that time, too. But, if they’re open to our support and love, I’ll be there in memory of that life that had meant so much to me for so long.

Maybe then, they’ll come to know why it’d been important to us for them to have been there with us at the time. And I hope they’ll appreciate our showing up on their behalf.

I’d sure hate for them to feel the hurt we’d felt at the time. One can say it doesn’t matter—but, yes, it does. In this time of pain and mourning, a person needs to know they aren’t alone, and they have the support they need to continue living themselves. By showing up for these occasions, you can prevent those sad, lonely and resentful feelings from developing.

There are some who, for other reasons, whether personal or religious, don’t schedule a wake for their loved one. Instead, they have a simple memorial service. Same thing applies. Just because there won’t be an open casket affair, doesn’t mean the family and close friends don’t need your loving support, your words of encouragement. They certainly do.

Put aside your personal feelings and think how you would want to be comforted yourself at such a time.

I wish I had all those times before then. But I let the fear of crowds and of not knowing just what to say keep me away most of the time. Knowing what to say is half the battle. And that will be the subject of another article coming next.

Here’s an email I received from a woman I did some eBay business with a while back. I always include a signature with my emails, and she did me the honor of visiting here. This is what she said:

“Anita, I took some time and perused your web site. I was so sorry to read of your losing your parents within hours of each other. That had to be
incredibly difficult.

Your write-up on the wake experience was the first of its kind I’ve ever read. It amazes me how our society so dodges that topic. In fact, from the Phil
Donahue Show, right up to the current Oprah Winfrey Show, I have NEVER heard
any talk show host broach this topic – ever – not the subject of death/loss and
people’s reaction to it, or the practice in our society of wakes and
funerals. Truthfully, I think if there was a show or two on the topic, it would
greatly help some people, particularly young people who suffer the loss of a parent or sibling, and aren’t quite sure how to process the loss, nor what to expect
in the time that follows. Bottom line, it’s harder when one is younger.

I’ve been a music writer since my teenage years (I’m now 48), something I’ve quietly enjoyed, as well as those around me. Writing brings both pleasure and pain, depending on what one is writing about, right?

My best,
Katherine (myshihtzus)”

Yes, writing about this kind of thing is hard. Nope, I never thought it’d be me out to inform the universe that this kind of formal goodbye is needed to heal the deep wounds a death leaves.

I don’t doubt that it hits the young like a stamping elephant, but a loss, especially a double one, is a weight no one should have to struggle under. As I add this passage to the original article, it’s now two weeks past the twelfth anniversary of their passing. The wounds are healing—they must be. I can look at their photos now for longer than two seconds. Still missing them. That’ll never change . . .