I picked up my younger children after school, then proceeded to the middle school to retrieve my oldest. Together, we drove to a nondescript building in a neighboring town. Once inside, we were directed to a room where the din of voices overflowed into the hallway. When we entered the room, however, the voices abruptly silenced. Every head turned to gawk at us.
What had I done to shock these people?
I had brought children to a wake.
Fortunately, the deceased’s family was delighted that their loved one was being visited by children. My friends, however, were appalled. They were convinced that the sight of an open casket would give my children nightmares. It might scar them for life.
I reminded these friends that wakes were once routinely held in homes. Our parents and grandparents grew up understanding that death is part of life, that dying is part of living. Surely this is a healthier approach than sequestering death in the shadows, as if we can keep it at bay.
I attended my first wake when I was 7 or 8 years old. The deceased was an elderly friend of my mother’s. Since I had never met the woman, I was able to process the sights and sounds and smells of the funeral home without being assaulted by grief.
When a high school classmate of mine died a few years later, I was glad his was not my first wake. Unfortunately, the same was not true for my friends. One by one, teens arrived at the funeral home, and one by one they gasped when they saw our friend’s body laid out in an open casket. No one had told them what a wake entails. My mother quickly realized how unprepared these kids were, so she stationed herself at the entrance of the funeral home in order to intercept arriving teens. Walking alongside each one toward the parlor, my mother explained what they would be seeing inside. She was a godsend.
My husband Peter did not grow up attending wakes or funerals. He went to his first memorial service as an adult when the death of a business colleague made it impossible to avoid. This gradually eased him into funerals and even burials. But he could not bring himself to attend a wake. He thought they were ghoulish.
We’d been married about 10 years when Peter’s grandmother died, and, in keeping with his family’s wishes, we were asked to not bring our young children to the services. We respected the family’s request, but it meant Peter was alone in his grief. It also isolated the extended family from the sweet consolation of small children.
A few years later when my grandmother died, my entire extended family attended Nanny’s wake, funeral and burial. This included 10 great-grandchildren ranging in age from 9 months to 9 years. There were plenty of adults in attendance to help if a child became noisy, and the children’s presence helped soften our grief. I’ll never forget seeing my mother holding our chubby 9-month-old baby throughout my grandmother’s funeral. That baby gave such solace to my mother during a time of loss.
Needless to say, the children asked a lot of questions, which we answered as best we could. They listened to our words, but more so, they absorbed our attitude: death is a natural part of life and should not be feared. In fact, it should be celebrated.
Death is, after all, a personal invitation to spend eternity in paradise with God.
Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.