Unfortunately, I've been to my fair share of wakes. Most of them have been in funeral parlors — perhaps you are familiar with the setting: a large, carpeted and heavily draped area, with a 1970s formal living room kind of feel; straight-back chairs evoking the expectation of plastic seat protection to "keep them for good"; and, for some inscrutable reason and in spite of the fact that the color of death is widely agreed upon to be black, the décor always seems to tend toward mauve.
It is interesting that this is the kind of place that we choose to bid farewell to our dead. It makes sense on a certain level — having a wake in a large place where there is ample parking and which the deceased's family doesn't have to clean up provides a certain amount of convenience. And since death itself is rarely convenient, perhaps we look to get it where we can.
In my grandfather's day and time — Appalachia in the 1930s and '40s — the tradition was to hold wakes in the deceased person's home. The loved one was "laid out" in his or her own living room, and friends visited the family there to pay their last respects. To be sure, loved ones still had to take care of logistical issues like choosing the coffin (although I doubt there were nearly as many choices as there are today) and scheduling events (although decisions probably centered as much around the issue of where to situate the casket as anything else). But the way things were done back then gave mourners more of a chance to sit with death in the actual context of where real living takes place: at home, in the living room; not in a mauve, draperied parlor reserved for death alone.
Up until I began writing When the Whistle Blows, my own experience with old-time wakes came primarily from family lore. My grandfather's coffin, for example, had to be brought through the living room window to get it into the house. But the best story — and the one that first inspired me to begin writing my book — is that when my grandfather was alive, he and a group of his buddies went to the wake of one of their pals and actually got the deceased's body up out of the casket and had one last drink with him.
Can you imagine that happening at a wake in a funeral home today? Me neither.
Well, actually, I can. Because just after I'd finished writing the first chapter of When the Whistle Blows — where protagonist Jimmy Cannon sneaks into a funeral home with his brother to spy upon the rituals of his father's secret "Society" in connection with his uncle's wake — a dear friend of my own family died: Shirley Pike. Shirley was 88 years old, and although she was not related by blood, she had been a grandmother to me for my entire life. She and my mother had met when Mom was 18 years old, after moving to Washington, D.C., from Rowlesburg, West Virginia. The two became fast friends, and from the time I was born, Shirley supported me in everything I did and was there at all the key moments in my life. She took me on my first train ride to Philadelphia and let me order my first lobster. She watched me at the pool and made me hot fudge and butterscotch sundaes when I stayed overnight at her apartment during my middle-school summers. And when I turned 16 she took me to New York City for the first time in my life. We stayed at that famed literary haunt, the Algonquin Hotel, which I was too young to truly appreciate at the time. But I still have clear memories of her on that trip, after our days in the city, watching her drinking rum and Cokes with lime as we relaxed in the dark paneled lobby.
When Shirley died unexpectedly in 2005 there were some complications with the paperwork at the funeral home, so there was no opportunity for a wake until I was traveling through her town of Manassas, Virginia, to my first Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in New York City. I was nervous about the trip — I had just "gotten serious" enough about my writing to join SCBWI, and I knew I was going to read the first chapter of my novel and have it critiqued by other writers for the very first time. Although I knew she would have been proud of me, I hadn't told Shirley about my book. There had seemed no rush to spill the beans; Shirley had been doing fine until the night she died. But the day I arrived in Manassas I was deeply regretting not having told her.
Before I trundled over to the funeral home to pay my respects, Mom and I took the opportunity to go through Shirley's important papers. She had lived a very simple life with few possessions, so it wasn't a monumental task.We opened the box that contained her paperwork and there near the top was a poem I'd written when I was in fourth grade: "Happiness Is." She'd kept it as one of her important things for all those years. My heart flooded with both love and longing. Here I was on my way to New York City to begin my writing career, and Shirley was still participating in my life, still giving me gifts.
I packed up a little bag and went over to the funeral home with my husband, but I went in to see Shirley by myself. I wasn't strong enough to lift her up out of the casket like my grandfather had done with his buddy, but I did break out the glass I had packed in my bag, along with the pony can of Diet Coke and pint bottle of rum. I poured my drink, toasted her, and read "Happiness Is" aloud to her, followed by the first chapter of my novel.
I left the funeral home for New York City with an empty glass and full, if aching, heart. When I got to the city I took my family to the Algonquin where we all toasted Shirley. Two years later, when I headed up to New York to meet with my editor, after she'd given me a contract on my novel, I decided to splurge and stayed at the Algonquin in Shirley's memory. I sat in that dark, paneled lobby, drink in hand.
I'll bet you can guess what was in my glass.
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Fran Cannon Slayton lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Books mentioned in this post
Fran Cannon Slayton is the author of When the Whistle Blows