Going to a wake is always unpleasant. For one thing the departed, once embalmed, always looks like a stranger. Thus, the corkboard display of photos of the deceased as a baby, and as a teen, can only emphasize that he is now utterly a fossil. To make things worse, a wake usually comes in one of two ill-fitting sizes. The first is the intimate service. This wake makes you stay longer than you had wanted, because you feel obligated to shore up the forlorn little flock guarding the casket. In the other, plus-sized wake the mourners line up down the hall and outside to the street. In this case, it may take an hour to reach the “viewing.” When you finally arrive the family will say something like, “Thanks for coming” because they are too tired to say anything else. In either case, a wake means huddling over a casket with other mourners who mutter things like “He looks so natural, doesn’t she?” Such inane comments are preordained. A wake drags people who feel little connection with each other into an hour of clumsy intercourse. Therefore, the bereaved need clichés like “He’s at peace now” in order to create a simulacrum of conviviality while they awkwardly look over a corpse, who may not even have liked them while he was alive.
Thus, as a social gathering, the wake is numb business right from the start. So, on your way to the mortuary, while you contemplate the inevitable musty prayers and strained faces, a paralyzing torpor will descend upon your mind. Your feelings will suddenly congeal, and you will think, “Oh, God! It’s all so unnatural. Why don’t people just cremate?” Then you’ll think, “I’ll just send flowers. Flowers and a card. Money to a fund for sick children. That should be enough.”
However, the call of the traditional wake, followed by a Mass and burial, is stronger than you know. Because, despite your neurotic apprehensions, you don’t send flowers. You go. To the wake. You almost always decide to go to the wake. Why?
You go because you know there’s this thing that happens once you get there.
You go because the casket visit, the pious obsequies, and the shunt into wet, cold mud—not to mention the little after party offered to the remnant who have followed the cortege to the grave—all these ceremonies, together create, an oddly restorative effect. You go because the spritz of something foreign to the soul follows the trinity of wake, funeral and cemetery. The feeling is so oddly beautiful it’s something a Catholic has to think of as grace.
Then again, maybe you feel better just knowing you’re still alive.
Either way, this odd effect ambushes you. Perhaps you are standing by the mound of fresh earth. The sun has just squinted through some loser of a cloud which looks like car exhaust. In the distance a crow emits a weak and indifferent screech, the tree bark in the cemetery is black with rain, and then suddenly you think: I’m alive. I’m not dead, I’m alive . . . alive . . .
That’s why you show up and don’t just send flowers.
You go because a wake, and funeral, and burial are the greatest cure ever for that miasma which medieval philosophers called acedia, or sloth. The funeral wake is a tonic that shakes into vivacity the sluggard soul. For the wake does not so much wake up the dead as wake up the living—we—who sleepwalk in the anesthesia of everyday life. The wake startles out of dropsy the listless soul. I mean the modern soul who gazes at the chasm between himself and a life of holiness, and who can only respond by reaching for his smartphone to touch-start his new app, thinking “Oh, Hell, I’ll just send flowers?”
But this sense of awakened-up-ness that comes from a mortuary visit and what follows requires a precise act of the will to do any good. Like making a good Confession you must first exercise mental discipline, or as it is rendered in sports lingo, you must “lean in and focus.”
The regimen begins when you force yourself out of your car donning your rarely worn black suit. It continues as you scrape across the parking lot in your too-tight black shoes and willfully pretend not to notice that the funeral parlor’s exterior looks exactly like the portico of a nouveau riche country club. Secondly, you must choose not to react to the irony that at any mortuary door, at any hour, you will find a brace of chain smokers busily preparing themselves for their own caskets. Finally, you must steadfastly un-observe the number of men dressed in what looks like golf attire, or the number of young women dressed in black cocktail dresses.
In short, to become awakened by the dead you must become a little dead yourself. You must deaden your sense of irony, dull your eye for beauty; in other words, you must abstain from greeting the dead and the dead’s loved ones with your personal taste and culture; and, give yourself over to honoring those—who being dead—are without taste or culture.
When you take up this epic journey to enter the world of the dead by an act of self-abnegation everyone in the mortuary becomes just a little bit interesting. The men in the wash and wear suits, the women in the tacky black glitter.
Suddenly, you are surrounded not by distant friends or distant family but by a band of comrades in the fight for life. This one had hip replacement; that one a heart transplant. The other one has a son in rehab. Do you remember why Uncle Bob fled to Canada? Why Aunt Loretta never could become a nun? You give yourself over to it all, and precisely because you have observed beforehand, the pieties, the prayers, and the sturdy clichéd sayings, something happens. Like Odysseus, you have sprinkled blood and dug a trench. Thus, suddenly, at the funeral parlor, or at graveside, or while having coffee and cake you find that . . .
“…up out of Erebus they came,
flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone …
Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much
and girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow …”
(Odyssey Bk. XI, ll. 43-46 tr. R. Fagles)
That trench ancient and new opens up at a wake and funeral. Whether we are at the casket or at the graveside, or at Mass, there we join the community of the living and the dead. And so as in The Odyssey, Book XI where the dead tell their stories, here at a wake and funeral we hear the stories of our dead.
Your uncle in fact had a wife you never heard of because she went crazy and got locked away. Your father almost left your mother after she threw her engagement ring in a lake. You have cousins you never heard of because they fled from town to town because they were Communists escaping, not the Smith Act, but other Communists. The great question: Did your great-great grandfather, the railroad cop, accidentally discharge his gun on his second wife when she hugged him, or was there foul play? Then there is the discovery that your great uncle whose hoarse laugh always ended with phlegm popping at the back of his throat was a bootlegger, who became rich after impregnating a debutante, and it’s true what they say: he was a gangster.
At a funeral wake and burial, if you are lucky, a grey cloud will burn away in the peeking sun, the crow will cry, the cemetery bark will weep with chilly rain, and then suddenly, there will be this sensation which I can only describe as being like carbonation with a thin dose of caffeine. It’s the feeling of being not just alive, but peopled—in your innards populated—by the lives of others who are both beyond life and still in it: other lives who bind us in an endless shawl that knits together the living and the dead in one single litany, the communion of saints.
Mark S. Milburn is a Midwestern businessman.