When I was a kid, my Dad was always going to wakes. With a stressful day job, three-and-then-four baby girls at home, two sick parents, and an overall busy life, he would frequently drive an hour to attend a wake for five minutes and then drive home. I never understood all of the effort, until I was part of a receiving line for the first time.
A wake is a strange ritual. During the most fragile and broken time of life, we are expected to shop for and then wear really nice clothes, then stand for four hours, and consume only water and mints. Really, when you think about it, it seems like a crazy amount of undue stress and strain just when we can take it the least. On the day before my Mom’s wake, I was crying and trying on clothes while a carpet installer worked on my stairs. In my grief and shock, I had neglected to cancel the appointment. The poor guy wanted to be sure he was doing the job just as I wanted it, and he asked my opinion too many times. Though I never said a word about my circumstance, it was hard to understand how he could not know the turmoil I was enduring. “My Mom just died” was written all over my bleary, red face.
On the afternoon of the wake, we were zombies. On entering the funeral home, we helped set up the photo boards my sister had created, placed the book, said some prayers, saw our mother, and took our places. It’s such a strange thing to occupy a room with a loved one’s body. You have to hope their spirit is there in the room, too, but for the first time, they’re separate entities: body and spirit, and that is obvious every time you look over there amid all those flowers. For me, it was just surreal, until the people came in.
The people brought love and care with them. They sometimes made us cry, and blessedly, made us laugh. Some had memories of our mother that they shared, but most didn’t. They were there for us. So many times, I looked down that busy line and found one or two of my people, and I was overwhelmed with their effort, their care, their gift of love that was their presence.
Everyone in line at a wake knows what’s truly important. You see in the family pictures a life laid out before you. The deceased’s relatives, friends, experiences, hobbies, habits, and quirks are all there if you look. And, maybe for the first time, ALL of it is celebrated. No one speaks ill of the dead, after all, especially not the newly dead. And if you’re in a wake line, you know your only job is to Love One Another, to bring peace and love to the family when it’s your turn. You know you’ll get just a minute or two, and you really want to do your best to help during that time. And if you’re a self-examining kind of person, you also may think about the day when it will be your line, your wake, your family….and you’ll pledge to work hard to make that line the longest it can be when that time comes, to affect as many other people as you can in this short stint on Earth. Someday the picture boards will feature your life and mine, and what will that look like, exactly? It’s up to us, today, to figure that out.
In this season of life, I find I’m going to a lot of wakes, and now I know why my Dad continues to attend as many as he does. Life is busy, and it’s rare that we have an opportunity to examine our lives and at the same time, to do our best to be a blessing for other people. A wake is one of those rare times. It’s one of the strangest rituals we have, but maybe in the care that’s given, in the lessons that are learned, and the resolutions we make, we are never more awake than when we’re at a wake, and that might make all the difference.