As a marginally observant Jew, when I married twenty-six years ago, I believed that the challenges of building a successful interfaith marriage were not insurmountable. As newlyweds, my wife and I shared compatible goals and dreams. We had survived the wedding, in which we attempted to blend Jewish and Catholic traditions into one ceremony, and the issue of raising our future children religiously was a distant concern.
I confronted one significant cultural difference between Christianity and Judaism when I attended my first wake. Although I had learned something about wakes from Christian friends and had witnessed facsimiles of wakes in the movies, I really didn't know what to expect.
The first wake I attended was for my friend's father. Although I wanted to be supportive to my friend, his mother and sister, I was uncertain as to what was expected of me and how I was supposed to participate.
To be really honest, my greatest fear was how I would react physically to the presence of an open coffin. I had attended funerals for Jewish relatives (where the coffin remains closed) and thought about the physical appearance of the deceased relative as I looked at the coffin. However, the prospect of viewing the body of my friend's father was unsettling.
While there are many challenges facing interfaith newly weds, one advantage to marrying a Catholic woman was that I was able to draw upon her knowledge of Christian funerals and wakes. I followed her lead as we attended the wake of my friend's father.
Unlike the Jewish tradition I had grown up with (where the burial takes place as soon as possible, and friends and family then visit the grieving family at their home over the next seven days), Christian traditions commonly call for visiting with the grieving family in the days following the death and up until the time of burial. The wake typically takes place in a formal funeral home. Upon entering the building, there is a sign indicating in which room the wake is being held. The room has the appearance of a formal living room or parlor with plush carpet, classical window drapes and upholstered chairs.
When we entered the room where the wake for my friend's father was being held, we joined the end of a line of visitors. As we solemnly proceeded through the room, we first stopped at a podium holding a visitor's sign-in book. Next, we came to the coffin, which was surrounded by many sprays of long stemmed flowers as well as pictures of my friend's father and some of his certificates of accomplishment. A padded kneeler was located beside the open coffin. The visitors who preceded us were kneeling beside the coffin and appeared to be speaking to my friend's father or imparting one final prayer on his behalf.
As we walked by the open coffin, I glanced at my friend's father, who was dressed in a black suit, white shirt and necktie. His hair had been trimmed and his hands were folded on his chest, clasping a string of rosary beads. Beyond the coffin, my friend and his family were waiting in a receiving line. Despite my apprehension over approaching an open casket and viewing a dead person for the first time in my life, I learned that there was no expectation that I walk up to the coffin
When we reached the head of the line of mourners, we embraced our friend and his family and shared with them our deep sorrow over their loss. We then waited in the funeral parlor until the line had ended and we were able to speak with our friend at length.
Since my first wake, I have attended wakes for my mother-in-law, relatives, friends and neighbors. Although the specific details of wakes may vary, each wake takes place within specified visiting hours during the days preceding the funeral. When the members of the family in mourning are close friends or relatives, one may wish to remain at the funeral home to meet with other friends and relatives or to spend more time with the grieving family. However, in the case of a wake at which you are not a close friend or relative, there is no expectation that you remain at the funeral home after speaking with the grieving family in the receiving line.
Although the setting and the rituals around mourning are not the same as those I grew up with, I have come to appreciate that the structure and formality of the wake bring a degree of comfort and reassurance to the grieving family. Each wake I have attended has been a celebration of the life of the deceased.