Bring Back the Wake!

By Joel Hess

“One mornin’ Tim was feelin’ full,

His head was heavy which made him shake;

He fell from the ladder and broke his skull,

And they carried him home his corpse to wake.

They rolled him up in a nice clean sheet,

And laid him out upon the bed,

A gallon of whiskey at his feet,

And a barrel of porter at his head.”

Chorus: “Whack fol the dah O, dance to your partner,

Welt the floor, your trotters shake;

Wasn’t it the truth I told you,

Lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake!”

-Finnegan’s Wake, 19th century, author unknown

 You can’t get better than a Lutheran funeral.  In fact, most pastors will tell you they enjoy funerals more than weddings!  Well, they actually wouldn’t come out and tell you that – so that’s our little secret.

Our liturgy precisely points to Jesus promise of resurrection and the physical link of promise and water in baptism.  And, of course, the sermons are not prayers for or praises of the dead in Christ; instead they wring from us repentance and heal us with peace and joy in the work of Jesus, the firstborn of the dead.  No need for sermon props either, as the congregation stares at a corpse clothed with a white pall.  (There is the story of the young preacher who attempted a children’s sermon at a funeral, but that’s another matter.)

Before almost every funeral, a well-intentioned relative of the departed asks me if he can say a few words.  Sometimes they ask sincerely: weeping and desperately desiring to honor the one they love. Other times they speak as if their speech is a crucial part of the ceremony.

Lutherans usually don’t allow eulogies in the service, though they shouldn’t be asses about it. The family is looking to the pastor for help, not a brilliant lecture on history and a blog they read.  Still, the service is a time of comfort in Jesus.  Good Lord, we have a dead man here!  Your story about buying goldfish with him at Walmart does not make anyone feel better or provide even a glimmer of hope!  Memories without hope only mock the mourner and drive her deeper into despair.  If there is no resurrection, then memories curse us more than comfort.

There are a number of reasons why people assume they need to speak at a funeral service.  For non-Christians, what the hell else are you going to do?  We can’t have silence.  Just talk about something else besides the worms and the dirt and an empty home. Just keep talking; keep clinging to the past, that will soon be buried, or some Carl Sagan quote you read on Facebook.

For other Christians, they have been cursed with the savagery of resurrection-less, or worse Jesus-less funerals.  As Ross wrote a couple of weeks ago,  the funeral is the pinnacle of Christianity, it is the rubber hits the road moment.   All your Sunday school stories and youth trips, all your services and potlucks, all your sermons and sacraments converge here! Is death it?

So these Christians come barging into a good Lutheran service and assume there will be a lot of talk about their cousin who loved life and always had a smile.

But the biggest reason people want to say something at a funeral service is because our modern society has robbed them of the opportunity they once enjoyed.  There was a time when a loved one died and their body lay comfortably in their home (whether people were still living there or not).  Family and friends would come with green marshmallow salad and slices of spam.  And if they were of the sort who enjoyed a Bell’s porter, they would swirl the good earth between their cheeks and share stories about the departed with tears, laughter, or both.

Instead, we steal the body away and place it in a foreign place where only dead people go.  We allow just a couple of hours in this strange place to speak quietly with the unmarked mourners.  This is all done with the intention of making death easy on us; but, maybe, we have made it too easy.   I truly respect and appreciate our funeral homes in Cadillac, Michigan. They sincerely serve the people with great care, etc.  And my family has personally been blessed by their commitment and vocation. But perhaps we have laid upon them our responsibility.  We should dig the grave.  We should clothe the body.  We should straighten the arms and close the eyes and kiss the forehead.

Bring back the wake, which is short for ‘staying awake.’ It is a vigil at home around the loved one: mixed with prayer, stories, tears and laughter (depending of course on the difficulty of the loss). This should be the important time and space to speak, give eulogies, etc. It is not the funeral service and the funeral service is not a wake.

It’s ok to talk about your loved one who is with the Lord!  It’s ok to speak well of her and laugh about the fish that got away.  It is good, right and salutary. There is a time for that. But then there is the time to listen to the Lord, who loves those stories too, but right now would rather raise your brother up from the dead and kiss you with the Holy Spirit.