Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Wake me when the coffee’s perking. (And don’t forget the donuts.)

I grew up hearing my grandmother talk about the great Irish wakes she’d attended as a girl. These weren’t quite the brawling booze-ups sung of in “Tim Finnegan’s Wake”, but there was always some element of hilarity. Most of Nanny’s stories featured a character known as “Shirty” Connell.  Shirty would always show up at midnight, when the spread was laid out for the wakers who were spending the night in vigil with the deceased and their closest relicts.

I can’t remember why Shirty was called Shirty, but it may have had something to do with his having one clean shirt that he brought out for wakes.

These were the days of the wake-in-the-home, which had pretty much died out by the time I became a wake-goer. I did have one friend whose grandfather had been waked in his living room, but that was before I knew her.

For my wake-going parents, it was a different story.

The wakes of their childhoods were still home-made. And they did have stories about them.

Typically, my father’s stories were funny. They featured raucous boys crawling under the draped trestle on which the casket rested, and pushing the late, lamented up, scaring the beejaysus out of the old Irish ladies in attendance who, by that point, may have started enjoying a drop of the creature, rather than waiting for Shirty to blow in at midnight and declare the party on.

Typically, my mother’s stories were not funny. Her “favorite” – if it can be thus characterized – involved her being dragged to the house wake of someone who’d died in childbirth. Mother and babe – in arms – were laid out together in a double bed, as if they were sleeping. “The baby looked just like a doll.”

To this day, I’m not sure whether the story differential is the difference between the Irish and the Germans, or the difference between the world view of Al and Liz.

Probably the latter, as the dead-babe-in-arms scenario seems right up the alley of any number of morbid, maudlin, sentimental Irish-ers I can think of.

(I also recall my mother saying that, at her brother Jack’s wake, the only people who wanted to take pictures of him in situ were Irish immigrants. Exactly what they planned on doing with the pictures were never quite made clear. Put them in their scrapbooks? Ah, here’s that good looking Jake Wolf. Sure, he looks like he could sit right up and ask for your vote now, doesn’t it?  My Uncle Jack was a state representative in Illinois.)

Anyway, the point (at last) here is that, in the good old days, wakes were explicitly social occasion, and, since you were in someone’s home for them, there was an expectation that you would be fed.

Fast forward to wakes being held not in your parlor, but in a funeral parlor.

While the occasion was still social – trust me here: I’ve been to plenty of wakes – it was less explicitly so.

There was neither food nor booze at the wake, but, rather, after the funeral, when everyone who’d hung with you all the way to the cemetery was invited back to someone in the family’s house or, more recently, to a restaurant or function room, for a lunch.

So I don’t view it as all that unseemly that a Massachusetts legislator has proposed the food be allowed to be served in funeral parlors:

Under a controversial bill now before the Legislature, funeral feeding stations could become de rigueur, allowing mourners to load plates at wakes. A State House hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Health tomorrow will consider lifting the ban that prevents funeral directors and embalmers from preparing or serving food and drink during wakes, services and burials.

Dave Casper, owner of the Casper Funeral Home in Boston, said he sees food for thought in the concept proposed by Sen. Thomas P. Kennedy (D-Brockton), who could not be reached yesterday. Casper said mourners ask him “all the time” if he has any munchies on hand ... and he catches them “all the time” sneaking in snacks.

If “someone wants to grab a cup of coffee or a doughnut or a snack while the service is going on, that’d be OK,” Casper said. But there’s a limit. “If they’re looking to have a prime rib dinner while they’re standing next to the casket, that’s a different story.” (Source: The Boston Herald. That’s right, The Herald.)

I may not have put it quite like Dave Casper, but he’s got a point.

One thing when the wakes were two hours in the afternoon, with a couple of hour break, then another two in the evening. You had time for a bite between sessions.

But now we have what my brother Rick refers to as “the fabulous four”: a one shot, four-hour wake held for a single day. (Wakes of my youth extended over a two-day period, followed by the day of the funeral.)

So what if someone stands around with a cup of Joe while hanging around for some part of “the fabulous four”?

I’m not talking gulp and go here, nor do I think that the spread should be laid out on your way in. I don’t like the idea of someone trying to juggle a cup of tea and a crust-less chicken sandwich, while kneeling before the casket trying to reverently gaze at the stiff. So that, when they move on to greet the family, they can mention what a good job/terrible job they did with Great Aunt Bridie’s hair or mouth.

Also, I don’t think that most people would like it if someone got brownie crumbs, or – worse – spilled a drink (hot or cold) on the departed.

But having coffee, tea, and cookies available for those in attendance would be fine with me – whether in the room with the body, or in an ante-room. A lot of funeral parlors already have bowls of wrapped hard candy on the tables, just in case someone’s feeling in need of a piece of butterscotch or a Brach’s toffee.

Some funeral directors oppose the food idea.

…Peter Stefan of Graham, Putnam and Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester said he is dead set against the idea.

“Who wants to serve bologna sandwiches during calling hours?” said Stefan.

Peter, Peter, Peter: you’re no fun. Who said anything about a bologna sandwich?

David Wakinshaw, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association is, diplomatically, taking neither side.

He noted that, on the one hand, it would be convenient for families, and a revenue source for funeral homes

On the other hand:

“The funeral event itself is somber,” Wakinshaw said. “You don’t want it to go to the level where people are walking around with snacks.”

Yes, a funeral event is somber. But, in truth, there are many aspects of a wake and funeral that just plain aren’t, especially if you’re not closely related to the deceased and are just there to support those who are. I’m not talking about the funeral of a child here, by the way. I can’t see that as being anything but a terrible and somber occasion, beyond imagining. Or even the wake of a young adult, whose grief stricken family no longer know which way is up.

But most wakes and funerals are, well, for older folks. My age and above. If you can’t share a funny memory or have a laugh or two at a wake, well, my goodness: where is it okay to? And don’t we all want the kind of send-off where people talk about us, remember the good stuff, and have a few laughs?

Wherever two or more are gathered telling stories, sure why not have a bit of something to munch on?

As for “people walking around with snacks,” Mr. Wakinshaw’s grandmother apparently failed to tell him any stories about Irish wakes.

And a tip of the chapel veil to my sister Trish, who pointed this story out to me.


valerie said...

Once again, I side with my Confederate friends. The body is 'done' as it is up North, with calling hours at the funeral home for those folks who want a last view. The family will have had a private viewing earlier in the day. During the public hours, they are to be found at someone's home holding a yummy open house for anyone to come calling -- whether they've been to visit the absent one or not. My first experience of this approach was for dead John and I am as big a fan of this approach as you can be for a wake.

Anonymous said...

I remember as a child in rural SC playing around my grandfather's casket which was set up in the living room at his house for at least a day before the funeral. The table in the kitchen was groaning with food the neighbors brought in, and we all sat around the casket eating fried chicken and other goodies. Good times!

I don't mean to imply that we didn't grieve for my grandfather, but as he was nearly 90 and in bad health, his death was not a surprise. It was the family and friends coming together that makes me remember it as a joyous time.

The first family funeral we had after I married really puzzled my then-husband whose family took a much more somber view of funerals, however he quickly adapted as he loved a good get together as much as any of us!