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death becomes us

I went to a wake last night. As wakes go, it was the kind where the deceased was expected to be deceased at any moment now, and where people are almost relieved that the deceased has "gone on to a better place." There's laughter and friends seeing old friends for the first time in a long time and lots of backslapping and people huddling outside smoking and telling stories. You go up to the family of the deceased and kiss their cheeks and say you're sorry and they smile at you like it's so damn good to see you, even if this is a funeral parlor and your mother's very dead body is on display in the front of the room. It's almost like a "meet and greet" after a rock show, but with a lot of older people in suit jackets and khakis. And the aforementioned dead body. Which, one would guess, you could find backstage at some concerts.

I'm well versed in the way of wakes; I've been to - I would guess - more than 200 or so in my lifetime. Italians are very big on all things death and even the little kiddies are dragged to funeral homes, so they can sit and be petulant while relatives try to kiss their cheeks or maybe they just make a scene by peering into the coffin and saying something like "ewww, grandma's skin feels funny!"

I've been to wakes that are somber and mournful, where the family is inconsolable and the tears flow freely. I've been to wakes (my grandmother's comes to mind) where people (brother-in-law specifically) set up a mini bar outside in the back of their Explorer and everyone gets drunk and have to be told to be quiet and respectful at least a dozen times. I've been to wakes of young and old, of relatives and friends, of strangers who were family members of co-workers and once, to the wrong wake, which was in the room next to the wake I was supposed to be attending.

All these wakes had one thing in common, and that would be - you guessed it - the dead body.

You sit in this room, with the folding chairs set out as if you were at an AA meeting, and when you sit down you face the front of the room and there on display, like Lenin forever preserved, is the prone body of the person you are there to mourn. They often look nothing like what they did in life; too much make-up, or the wrong shade of lipstick or a maybe wearing a tweed suit that they wouldn't have been caught dead in except now, they are just that.

This seems wrong to me on so many levels. Where did this tradition of honoring the dead by staring at their corpse? Does anyone besides me think it's just a little creepy to be gathering around a body that's been drained of its blood and had makeup carefully applied and was dressed up to be put on display?

Well I do, and I'll have none of that. This weblog is sort of public record, right? So I will go on record right now (are you listening, sisters of mine?) as saying if, when I die, my family members deem it necessary to display my corpse to my friends and family, I will see to it that I get an express pass from whoever runs the afterlife giving me permission to haunt you all forever. I will come to you in the middle of the night and sing really bad songs in your ears. I will drain remove the distributor cap from your car and drink milk out of the carton in your fridge and yes, I will make sure that spitback gets in it. I will fast forward all of your video tapes and replace all your CDs with the Best of Kenny G. Trust me, you do not want to be haunted by me.

So, here is what you will do when I die: You will dispose of my body immediately by burning it. Well, you will have it done professionaly and by that I don't mean Uncle Vinny from Staten Island will roll my corpse in a carpet and throw some gasoline on it. I want to be cremated.

Then, you will rent a hall or something to that effect and you will have a nice little memorial service for me, which will consist of some food and some drinks and a little Nick Cave played in the background. You will read past entries from this weblog, especially the ones where I talk about relatives I don't like. And when all the drunken cousins leave, and the last aunt has wrapped up the leftover food in a napkin to take home with her, you will all (all meaning immediate family, not the whole lot of you) get in a car and drive my ashes (stored in a simple Tupperware(tm) container (not to be confused with TupperWar(tm)) and you will dispose of my ashes in the proper manner.

Scatter them over Yankee Stadium. Or Lambeau Field. Or just dump them down the toilet bowl. Just don't try to smoke them, ok?


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» The Cul-de-Sac for Monday, September 22 from suburban blight
Good morning, bloggers and blog aficionados! Welcome to the Cul-de-Sac, my eternal quest to figure out what's what in my ever-expanding blog neighborhood. This week, I thought I'd kick her off by answering a few of the most commonly asked... [Read More]

» The Cul-de-Sac for Monday, September 22 from suburban blight
Good morning, bloggers and blog aficionados! Welcome to the Cul-de-Sac, my eternal quest to figure out what's what in my ever-expanding blog neighborhood. This week, I thought I'd kick her off by answering a few of the most commonly asked... [Read More]


Concur on the body display. Inspired choice of Lambeau, but I bet you wouldn't be the first.

New York/Italian funerals are somewhat of a social event, arent they? Been to a Pocono one yet? I felt like an over-dressed buffoon, while the deceased's own sons came in as if they were going hunting/fishing afterwards.

I don't know. I need to see the body to get a sense of closure. I leave most "closed-casket" wakes with the "I can't believe they're gone." feeling that I had when I first heard the news.

To give the deceased a more natural appearence, the embalmers use the dye eosin, which turns the skin a nice pink color. I know of one case where the corpse was so pink that the anatomy students who were dissecting it nicknamed it "Pink Floyd".

MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY! :D My family is big on wakes, too, and they have always creeped me out beyond belief.

I do have a bit of info on where the tradition started, though (this from my mother, after I asked her why anyone would want to sit around a funeral home for hours staring at a dead body.) According to Mom, it has something to do with something that was in the beer or whatever it was people were drinking in Ireland (or maybe it was in the material the cups were made out of) that could poison someone so that it would look like they were dead, but sometimes they weren't. So the family would sit around with the body for three days before they buried it to make sure the person was actually dead. When they finally did bury the person, they would tie a string around their finger and attach it to a bell above the ground so if the person woke up and moved their finger, someone could come dig them up. (This is also where the phrase "saved by the bell" came from.)

Um... I think...

But ditto on cremation. Wakes... yick... what a sick tradition.

Can't say I've ever been to a wake before. I think I've been to one funeral in my life, no two. But thankfully no body was displayed.

Chrissy has it down for the most part. I don't know about the liquor, but way back in the day they would have a "wake" to make sure that the deceased was actually dead. Too often a dead body came back to life because people lacked knowledge, technology, or just plain common sense when it came to determining if a person was dead or not. If I remember right they also used to tie a string around the finger of a corpse that had been buried to a bell and someone would sit at the grave and make sure the person buried didn't wake up and find themselves in a rather unfortunate circumstance and remain there. I hate funerals, wakes, the whole lot. I haven't been to one in twelve years. I should post why on my blog today, it's worth typing out.

Irish wakes are exactly like that too. I think old people scour the obituaries like they are the personals - its an opportunity to get out an socialize.

I hate funerals. Bless my dad for making it very clear that he did not want one. I don't need a dead body or a prient for closure. Dead is dead.

Michele, how nice of you to share these thoughts with us.

At every funeral I've attended with my mother, she lingers at the casket and says "That doesn't even look like him/her." I always respond with "Ya think the lack of oxygen might have something to do with that??" Because of this, I've always said I don't want people looking at me.

However, I have to agree =E=, seeing the body does give closure. Todd's brother was cremated and without the body or casket, his service seemed like a family reunion.

I think wakes are positively ghoulish. My standing instructions to the family are, if you must have one, have it closed casket and set up the bar ontop. No embalming, please. As for the buried alive thing, I want a trowel, flashlight, oxygen bottle and thermos full of coffee stuck in the pine box with me, just in case...

There is a definite ghoulish aspect to seeing the body, but I can also see where it helps bring closure - at least in some cases. I've never been to a wake, but I can see a significant benefit in terms of helping to keep family ties strong. A regular memorial service with some preacher yapping away, pretending he knew the deceased really well, doesn't afford much chance for social interaction.

Michele's idea is probably the best - an informal gathering with some selected possessions and creations of the departed on hand to help stimulate memories and conversation. Yeah, I think that's what I'll go for...

The totally weirdest wake I was ever at was a South Philadelphia Italian event, which was a 50/50 split between bankers and bikers.

Hard core Harley ridin' blewed screwed and tatooed bikers and major league old Philadelphia money.

Stange beyond belief.

Imperial Falconer

Oh, I also had an aunt who was late for her own funeral.

Another true story.

Imperial Falconer

The closed-casket ceremony is the byproduct of a culture that wishes to shield itself from the unpleasant reality of death. Put me down as one of those who need to see the body to find closure...otherwise, it's too much like the deceased just up and left without having the courtesy to say goodbye.

Re: the tradition of the wake. Down here in the South we call it "sittin' up with the dead." Before the advent of modern medicine, premature burials were not at all unheard of. I don't believe the tradition originated with the Irish, but they do seem to have elevated it to a high art form...as they are wont to do with any occasion which involves the consumption of large amounts of alcohol. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

In my part of the world it's called "visitation", and takes place for something like 4 hours the day before the funeral. My relatives are a long-lived bunch, so I've been to very few funerals. I share your views on viewing the body, Michele. In every funeral I've been to, it was the next of kin (usually the widow), who grabbed me and insisted I come up and view the body. "Doesn't he look nice?"

I remember attending my first funeral when I was about 19, and not five feet from the casket were two ancient women, cackling and laughing and telling stories. I was appalled. I wanted to say, "It's your turn next, ladies."

Contrary to Lisa's experience, I don't think that viewing the body makes a difference in the "closure" department. When my grandfather died in April, the church ladies gave a nice dinner for the mourners after the funeral. We laughed and talked and occasionally I'd think, "Where's Grandpa? I want to say hi to Grandpa." But of course he wasn't there. Same thing when my high school best friend's mother died. I kept wondering where she was, because she'd have sure enjoyed the party.

Well, that's one argument for signing the organ donor card. Once they hork out all your parts, you ain't going to be buried alive.

The wake is particularly rough on the immediate family, but if you poke a sore spot long enough it starts to go numb.

As horrible as it is, I think in some way it helped me prepare for the actual funeral. That was tough when I buried my father, and I think that having spent the previous day surrounded by people who felt at least a little of what I did steadied me.

However, I have to say that NOTHING will prepare you for a 21 gun salute. The first cycle punches completely through you, and when you think you're ready for the second round it does it again. The third volley is the easiest, because you know it's the last, and pretty much closes the whole thing.

Having said all that, I also expect to be cremated, but I also intend to leave behind a bit of cash so that a proper binge can be financed for those who survive me.

But hey, that's me.

I'm totally with you on the 21 gun salute Datarat. Every time I've been to a funeral with one the first volley makes my knees want to buckle.

I wrote about a very unique wake experience after reading Michele's post. You can find it here.


Personally, I don't care what they do with me as I won't be there(if you know what I mean). Who was it that said that instead of burial or cremation, he wanted to be blown up? George Carlin, I think. Only thing neat about any of it is at a military funeral, you have the playing of taps or bagpipes. Cry fest city.