My mother and my aunties would recount stories of family members being waked in the living room. “We would clean and dress the body, and then sit vigil together with it until it was time to head to church and then the cemetery.” The family’s hands were the last to serve the departed, and there were traditions and family customs that developed from it. One of my earliest memories is of my mother telling me that when she died I was to make sure she was buried with her prayerbook — a custom begun in the auld country.
This is not something we would say to a four year old, these days, but to her generation, death was not a distant, hands-off, reality-bending stranger, but an inevitability to be pondered and thought about. My mother even told me — although she had another 15 years in her — to make sure we buried her in the dress she wore to my wedding. In fact, that was our first exchange that day: “Mom, you look pretty!” “Yes, bury me in this dress…”
An Inevitability to Be Pondered
It was the death of my brother, and the subsequent deaths of three other brothers over an eighteen-month period, that first got me thinking about all that our present customs have taken from us. Western funeral customs have become so fastidious and hands-off that they keep a grieving family at a distance from death.
Those customs keep us from the terrible but real beauty that comes with accompanying to the end those we love — living, sharing and finally celebrating that love, even in those difficult, gut-wrenching moments we think we cannot endure.
Health codes exist, of course, but when did we surrender all responsibility for the care of a loved one’s remains into the hands of strangers? Might we be able to once again involve families in some little part of that? A wife, who daily adjusted her husband’s tie, might do that one last time before the wake begins — give her that one little intimacy, again. A daughter might straighten her mother’s dress.
I did in fact remember to place my mother’s prayerbook in the crook of her arm when she was laid out, also pinning her First Communion pin to her bodice, as she’d wanted, and took some satisfaction in knowing that I’d been able to see to a final wish of hers. And yes, we buried her in that dress.
Elizabeth Scalia is the content editor for Word on Fire and the author of the award-winning books, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us. She was recently editor-at-large of Aleteia. This is adapted from “When a family digs the grave, and lowers the body themselves…” on Aleteia.