Young man’s wake

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I walked in and there he was. He had been in a terrible car crash so there was netting draped over the open casket. It didn’t really look like him; at least not as I remember him. How sad it was to look at this corpse and realize that this was my brother’s young friend Jerry. A few days ago he was up and about, laughing, partying, and living. I couldn’t imagine that this was the same person.

There were a lot of people at the wake, and it was held at the neighborhood funeral parlor. It was a time when you lived in a neighborhood all of your life and everyone knew everyone. Were they thinking the same thing I was thinking? Probably! But they all seemed to be reacting in different ways. Some were standing in clusters and talking about other things altogether, some were talking about Jerry’s life, some were talking about the accident, some were just staring, and some were crying.

Everybody knew and loved a member of the family. Some of the people did not know the dead boy, but they did know the parents and were there to pay their respects. They wanted to support them in their grief. Some were friends of the deceased, and they were there for their own grief. Perhaps they were aware of how this could have been one of them. Perhaps they became a little less foot loose and fancy free. Perhaps they became a little more aware of their own physical mortality. They probably didn’t have a clue about life everlasting. It was something they may have studied in church school but that was for someone else. Then again, so was death in general. Up until now it was certainly not for one of their own. Each of his friends lost some of their youth that night.

Some of the people were little people, children, who had no idea what was going on. There was no emotion attached to this event for them. It was a party with a lot of people, so they wanted to run and play. That is what you do at most parties. I bet they were confused as to why they kept getting told to settle down and be respectful.

Finally, the priest arrived and everyone knelt down to say the prayers. There was a regular litany of prayers for the dying. It seemed to make the entire evening official. This was what it was all about: viewing the body and saying the prayers, saying good-bye to Jerry and getting together with others who were in emotional pain and comforting each other.

There was no eulogy that night, for that would happen tomorrow at the funeral. I wonder why they do it that way. Is it a ritual and a way of prolonging the inevitable? Once Jerry is buried, there is no turning back. There is no hope that he is just sleeping and will wake up and tell everyone it is just a joke. There will be no last glance at the open coffin. Jerry will forever remain a memory. Once he is buried, there is only the empty void in his family that used to be him. That void and its pain: will they ever go away?

This is a ritual but a very important one. It is how the family and friends know to say good-bye. To get past the denial stage of grief and to support one another. It is a time when they are able to forget about other obligations and just feel the pain of the loss.

There are many ways of handling the death of a loved one. This was just one of them. For this family, it was the one that helped them go on to tomorrow.