What’s in a wake? Prayer, sharing of memories, expert says

| October 26, 2016 | 2 Comments
John Cherek, director of Catholic Cemeteries, believes that wakes are an important part of the funeral and burial process, and recommends following the Order of Christian Funerals. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

John Cherek, director of Catholic Cemeteries, believes that wakes are an important part of the funeral and burial process, and recommends following the Order of Christian Funerals. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

John Cherek, director of Catholic Cemeteries, shared his thoughts about wakes with The Catholic Spirit.

Q. What is the traditional definition of a wake and how does it fit into the overall funeral and burial process?

A. The actual word “wake” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, “waken.” And it means to keep watch, to be awake while you watch. In many ancient cultures as well as Christianity, the wake became the custom of keeping vigil, or watch, over a body, from the time of death until burial. And, it usually continued through the night. I think, quite simply, a wake is the custom of keeping vigil or watching over the body or being with the body after death until burial occurs, and it continues through the night in some fashion.

Q. Why are wakes important?

A. It’s a specific time and place for the family and the community to begin the process of letting go of this person, of journeying with this person in death to the place of burial. It’s a structured interlude between the death and the funeral. It gives people some time to grasp the reality of the fact that this person has died. It gives time for the community to gather its resources and gather with the family, to begin this accompaniment on the journey through this process.

Q. What is the origin of wakes in the Catholic tradition?

A. It goes back to some of the Jewish traditions and Roman traditions that the early Church encountered. There were many traditions that the Jewish folks had, especially, in preparation of the body — the washing of the body, the anointing of the body, the placing of the body into white linens and the opening of the gravesite, which was, in most cases, a cave. It was allowed to be open for three days before the stone would be placed because there was this thought, in the Jewish tradition, that it took the soul three days to depart the body, so you needed to keep the door open for the soul to get out. The whole ritual sense of caring for the body after the person died was important to the early Christians. They picked up on that, and they were the ones who took care of the body. They would gather, once the body had been prepared and anointed and washed and clothed, and the body would be laid out in a person’s home, and then the community, over a period of time, would come and gather with them. There was praying, and there was telling stories, and there may have been music. It was an extended period of gathering around the body and accompanying the bereaved people.

Q. What would the ideal wake include and how much time should be allowed for it?

A. It’s fairly simple. I think what people need at the time of a death, especially in today’s world, is some kind of structure, something that they can look to to perform what is needed at the time of someone’s death. I think more so than any other religious tradition, the Order of Christian Funerals performs that function for us as Catholics. We do have a form for this process. If you look for the elements of a good wake and how to put one on, I think as Catholic Christians, we should look at the Order of Christian Funerals and the elements that it contains for the vigil service.

As Catholics, the vigil is the first step in the funeral rite of the Church, and the vigil is actually a prayer. It has suggested readings and a format. Within our culture, the vigil prayer can be placed in the context of what we call a wake, where people are gathering around the person who has died.

I think today we’re more attached to words like visitation, where people come during a certain period of time to the funeral home or to the church, and they express their condolences. They talk to people and then they leave. That’s the visitation. It’s kind of a social event.

But, in order for it to be a Catholic wake, you would have this time period where family and friends and relatives and the community gather with them around the body. We then employ the vigil prayer into that context. The vigil prayer can have a music element; it should have Scripture readings; it should have a reflection on the Scripture readings by the person who’s presiding.

And, most importantly, there’s a time for sharing memories and telling stories about the person who’s died, which can be the beginning of, especially for the family, acknowledging that the person has died. And there are many wonderful memories that we have of that person that tell us who he or she was.

So, the storytelling is really an important part of that. There can also be some ritual involved like inviting family members to go up and sign the cross on the body or, in the case of an urn, to sign the cross on the urn as part of that vigil ritual. So, the bottom line is that you should use the map that the Church provides. I think that’s a good starting point.

Another element for a successful wake would be having the body there. And, that’s the Church’s preference, even if you’re going to be cremated, that the body be present for the vigil and for the funeral Mass itself.

That’s the reason we’re gathering: to honor the body. This is the body that this person was living in throughout their life, that went through all the sacraments of the Church. The hands, the mouth, all the parts of the body were part of who this person is and the impact that they had and the relationship that they had with their families.

It’s not only a religious factor, but it’s also an instinctive factor that the body should be present for an ideal wake, and done in the context of the vigil prayer.

I think there should also be some time set aside for this whole process to occur. I think, at least in today’s world, if you can get four or five hours of time, preferably the day before the funeral Mass, that’s as ideal as you’re going to get.

We know in the past, the wake, the watching with the body, could extend over a number of days. And, in many cases, it happened in people’s homes. They watched with the body during the night. We don’t do that anymore, but I think there should be a set time for the visitation or wake for people to come and gather. And, the vigil prayer obviously is part of that.

I also think setting the time [aside for the wake] is really important. I talked to my wife, who’s a counselor, and she said initially, especially in the case of a sudden death, the mind doesn’t have the capacity to grasp all of what’s happened in a relatively short period of time. So, by having a visitation or a wake, that period of time before the funeral, gives the mind some time to slow down and acknowledge the fact that, “Yes, my [loved one] is dead.”

It can prepare people in a more holistic way for what’s to come. Interestingly, the Church has a prayer when the body is brought into the church. There’s a blessing ritual that the family can actually perform as the body is brought into the church for the wake or visitation.

I don’t believe most Catholics are aware of that, nor is it practiced. There are some times and opportunities in the order for that to occur. The order itself really promotes participation by the family, to be part of this, to help in the planning of the funeral, to help in the planning of the wake or vigil service. There are

opportunities for music selection, for participating in readings, participating in music itself, especially at the wake because there are no conditions that the Church prefers in terms of who can speak and how long they can speak.

Q. What tools and/or technologies can enhance a wake?

A. It’s an interesting question. Having access to music, whether it’s recorded music or having someone there with an instrument, is good. I think you can go to most funeral homes now, and they’ll have videos made of photographs that family members provided. The video will be constantly playing during the wake or the visitation.

A lot of families will put photo boards together. There are condolence or message boards that funeral homes provide, as well as the newspaper obituaries. The one fairly new and innovative practice is live streaming wakes and funerals to people who can’t be there. That’s probably going to become more common.

Q. A recent trend is people not having a wake the day/night before the funeral and instead having a one- to two-hour visitation right before the funeral. Is that a good idea, or are people who do that missing out on something that could be of benefit to grieving family members and friends?

A. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer to that. I think if you look at a one- or two-hour visitation, in many cases, it’s for older people, and if you talk to family members, they say, “Well, a lot of my mom’s friends are gone. We don’t expect many people to come, so we’re not going to have it for a long period of time.” That may be true — that the parents’ friends have died — but what they fail to remember is that they have friends and their family members have friends and connections to the community in which the person lived. A lot of those people might show up. So, the one- to two-hour visitation, to me, becomes a receiving line. People line up to express their sympathies to the immediate family members and then, in many cases, go on their way if there’s nothing more than that.

So, if there’s no vigil prayer, then it simply does become a receiving line, and it’s usually, in many cases, rushed because there is the deadline of the funeral Mass starting at 11 o’clock, so we have to at least have 15 or 20 minutes to prepare for that. I think what it does is eliminates the use of the vigil prayer, which is difficult to do in that period of time. It eliminates the possibility for storytelling and sharing memories, at least at that point in time.

It’s almost like it becomes a one-stop event. There’s no movement, there’s no procession to it. People show up and the body’s already present and the funeral Mass and whatever happens with the body will occur perhaps privately or with a smaller group of people, maybe even the next day. So, folks coming don’t have this sense of movement or procession. It’s simply a period of time when we go in, express our sympathies, and we may or may not stay for the funeral service.

I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to it, whether it’s bad or good. But, I think people really are missing something by compressing in time this part of the whole process.

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Category: Featured, Funeral & Hospice Planning

  • Thomas K

    Thanks to 2010 changes in Minnesota law, families today have greater latitude in caring for their own dead, not unlike the ways family and community members cared for the dead in the past.

    In Minnesota, if the person has not died at home, the family may transport the body home, wash it, anoint it, and dress or shroud it. The body does not have to be embalmed but can be kept cooled with dry ice or a product called techni-ice for up to 72 hours. The family may transport the body to the church, and from the church to the cemetery. While all Catholic cemeteries in the Twin Cities area unfortunately require a burial vault or grave liner, cemeteries that allow green or natural burial do not. In fact, a casket or coffin is not required. In “green” designated cemeteries, family and friends may even lower the body into the grave, and assist in covering the grave. These hands-on, participatory home and cemetery practices and rituals were routinely carried out by our forebears up until about 150 years ago.

    If cremation is the chosen form of final disposition, a home vigil can precede the cremation, and the family can then bring the ashes to the church and then on to the cemetery. You don’t have to hire a funeral home to do this. Or, cremation can follow a funeral liturgy in the church, where the family has brought the body after keeping vigil in the home.

    A number of Catholic cemeteries in the U.S. now offer the option of green or natural burial. At least two Catholic cemeteries are entirely “green.” At a time when even the Holy Father is calling us to reflect on practices which harm the environment and waste resources, we may want to re-consider the current death-care practice of burying tons of concrete and steel, instead of allowing the body to decompose naturally. I’d love to see our Minnesota Catholic cemeteries offer natural burial as an option.

    And the cost of these home and natural burial practices is vastly lower, since a funeral home is only minimally involved, and one does not need to purchase a burial vault, pay for embalming or the rental of the funeral home for the wake.

    One can find a lot of useful information about the wide array of local options for care of our dead at the website of Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota, a non-profit, all-volunteer organization which serves as a resource for choosing after-death arrangements. There are also local, trained volunteers who will assist a family who wants to hold a vigil in the home with the body present.

    Our ancestors all performed these tasks and rituals as a matter of course. Over time, we’ve forgotten how to care for our dead. There’s nothing to stop a parish group from recovering these practices so as to assist families in the care of the dead.

    • Elizabeth Beckman

      This is such interesting and timely information…perhaps Tom K could be interviewed for the Catholic Spirit to discuss more