A few months back by barber because seriously ill. Since I get my haircut about once every 6 weeks or so, I happened to come to the barber shop at the beginning of the "bad news cycle" that the other barbers in the shop had started. These old Italian men quite emotionally described how their brother barber had fallen ill, the grave prognosis, his family’s sorrows, the distress of his friends, etc. It was quite a natural outpouring of woe about everyone’s mutual friend.
Because of a probate court date I needed a trim about a month later. I was met once again with the new of the barber’s illness, he’ll be out until March, his wife has taken time from work, etc…It was quite matter of fact really, but they needed to tell me as I had asked "how’s he doing?" This got me thinking about how there is a whole exercise around communicating about grief. How we become accustomed to repeating dreadful things. "Yes, he went quickly, the bus driver was cited for speeding." "Mother fought cancer for years, it’s a blessing she’s gone." "I just woke up and there he was, he never woke up." Anyone that has stood in the receiving line at a wake has taken part in the modern grief dance. The mourner says "I’m so sorry for your loss"; the family member says "thank you for coming, it would have meant a lot to old Ed." Rinse, wash, repeat.
I’m not a psychologist but I think there’s some harm in wakes. Originally wakes were apparently held to ward off evil spirits (by staying awake with the body) until you got the body in the ground. Wakes then evolved to be a form of confirmation of death and social event. Until fairly recently in human history wakes were always held in the family’s home. Either dead people started having more friends or someone saw a business opportunity in using their living room for wakes and the "funeral parlor" was born. Me, I’d be perfectly happy to be waked in my front hall. The wake is an event for the living, not the dead. It’s a time to bring families together to mourn, grieve and share stories of the dear departed. Buy wouldn’t it be nice for a widow not to have to explain how her husband got stuck in the snowblower last Thursday 400 times?
I propose a new model for wakes. First, let’s do them in happy places like Cheesecake Factory or the Museum of Fine Arts. Seriously, the body will be happy wherever it is placed and frankly it’s only our more recent generations where all things human are pasteurized and sterilized. In many countries bodies are buried quickly after death (mainly for the practical purpose of avoiding the consequences of hot weather), but also to dispatch the dead corpse so that there can be a celebration of the person’s life through various forms of mourning. I think having a positive venue for a wake and funeral sends the message that the family continues to live. I think obituaries could be a bit more truthful as well to avoid the inevitable "how did she die?" question. How hard would it be to add a short line that says "Mary was walking along Main Street last Tuesday when a tiger that had recently escaped from the zoo caused her untimely death."
I will say I like what the Boston Globe has done with their obituary section recently. The Boston Globe has added the option (for a price) of adding a photograph of the decedent. I am always drawn to these people’s pictures. Today, sadly, there was a two month old baby’s picture. The other day there was a Marine in his dress blues that is not coming home from far off lands. It’s good to see that the dead are like us, not only old, but all ages. Death is a great equalizer – it doesn’t know class, race or creed. It is one of life’s certainties, and I believe the more we embrace proper estate planning, communication between the family members about last wishes and the inevitability of death, the less stressful will our deaths be for the loved ones we leave behind.
Those that know me know I love to boat and fish in Boston Harbor. A funeral director friend of mine has a boat berthed near mine, her name is "No Wake Today."