Admit it: there are a few fun parts to them, even those for your dearly beloved. Here are some:
1. Little kids' questions - Our family's array of children are getting to the age that this was their first wake, at least that they remember. After their solemn visit to the casket with their parents, and their wonderment at their parents' tears (can't you remember how awful and unsettling that was when we were little?), they loitered around the back of the funeral parlor and gradually loosened up. They thought the coffeecake and free soft drinks in the refreshment room were ALL RIGHT. During the long evening, they wandered up in pairs and trios during the evening to stand in front of the open casket and ask really loud questions: Is she sleeping? Will she get better? Where are her feet? Did she like flowers? Will she wear that dress forever? Why is she smiling?
The answers: No, she's dead and she's living with Jesus and Uncle P in Heaven. No, she won't get better, but she doesn't feel sick anymore. Her feet are right under there, they just close that part to put the flowers somewhere. And yes, she has shoes on (does she? I wonder myself, sometimes). Yes, she loved flowers and we loved her, so we got her a LOT. She's smiling because when she was alive, she smiled all the time, don't they remember?, and her face stayed that way.
Several children were surprised when they had to go to school the next day, because they thought the wake was a normal family party, which would normally be held on a weekend.
2. Christian-spotting - Since I found my faith (right where I left it - who'd a thunk?) I play the game in all large crowds, so I got to play a few rounds at the wake, too. You can't pick out Christians by whether they make the Sign of the Cross or kneel at the casket: that may simply constitute "good wake manners" to them. But you listen to other signals: people's churches get named in their self-introductions; they refer to my aunt's death in her sleep without a struggle as a "blessing" and they mean it; they talk about Heaven, happily and without any wryness; they know all the responses at the funeral service; they not only actually READ the prayer on the back of the memorial card, they sort through them to pick out a saint that they don't already have, like holy baseball cards ("Look! Here's a nice St. Francis. Do they have a St. Anthony for my friend?").
3. Bringing in dinner for the family room - I always get a small charge out of going through the McDonald's drive-through and ordering 25 hamburgers, 25 cheeseburgers, 40 small fries, etc., etc. I even enjoy paying for it.
4. Peeking at the other wakes - The funeral home we were in had four "viewing rooms" and three were being used. I always peek quietly in to see (1) if we have a better turnout and (2) if their families look like ours. They do, regardless of ethnicity; grief wipes out individuality. You could almost match us up, pair by pair: the young male cousin who doesn't own a suit yet, so he puts on any black shirt he owns and his good eyebrow ring and who usually brings his absurdly young and awkward girlfriend who weighs all of 87 pounds and who has apparently never been to a wake before and on the whole doesn't like it; the aunt who thought Sandra Dee was a good role model and sees no reason to abandon that opinion; the distinctive laugher, who can be male or female, but who can be heard all over the funeral parlor; and the little boy with one shirttail out, sporting one of those all-one-length haircuts you want to rub your hand over, who is always being snatched out of the air in mid-run or off the big couches in the front, which he is intently tackling, lacking only a compass and a canteen....
5. Driving to the cemetery - Silly me, I dig the little orange flags on my car. I love driving through red lights. I enjoy taking a million side streets (avoiding the expressway to keep the funeral cortege in one stream). I am always surprised at the ways that you can get there from here. And it never fails that the people in your car, provided that they are not the chief mourners, will point out a restaurant or store on the way and fall into an animated discussion about the food that might be there, or that they ate there, which leads to a food-poisoning story, or a rude waitress story, or....
None of the fun parts take away one jot or tittle of the grief, they're a simple human response to the exhaustion and sadness, and they leaven it a little.
And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan…
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