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Witnessing a Living Wake

Photo of a woman wearing an orange scarf, sitting in a gold painted chair with red velvet upholstery and satin cushions, leaning back and looking up at someone with love and smiles.

Witnessing a Living Wake: a Celebrant's Perspective

As a seasoned funeral professional, the concept of a living wake (or pre-wake wake, or living funeral) has been on my radar for the last few years, and I figure it is only a matter of time before I'll be approached to celebrate a person's life in this way, before the end. Given this inevitability, I feel fortunate to have participated in a living wake as a community member before I am asked to facilitate one.

The circumstances of the day were, without exaggeration, tragic. One of the most creative, pioneering, honestly passionate, genuinely funny, and entirely interesting people in our community developed a brain wasting disease that would snatch first her cognition and then her life, over a six week span from diagnosis to demise. In the last days that she was able to speak and make requests, she had asked for an open house the next weekend, a living wake, so she could see “her people”. She'd had an unconventional life, was embraced by an array of unconventional constituencies, and had hundreds of friends who wanted to say goodbye. Her neurological decline was so rapid that by the morning of the living wake she'd mostly lost the capacity for sensible speech, but could communicate that she was on board with the whole extravaganza.

Her caretakers brought her to an antique town hall in a rural village; a single large room with a painted tin ceiling, a golden wood floor, and tall windows. It is a well used community space with a raised stage at the end opposite the door, and a back kitchen. It is a place to gather for concerts, meetings, theater performances, weddings and funerals, and the annual Misfit Prom. When I arrived, there were easily a hundred cars parked along the snow banks surrounding the town Common. People were coming as people were going, so right away you had a sense of flow. Outside, the emotional tone felt similar to a traditional wake, people walking thoughtfully at that edge of mortality, reaching out to one another with warmth and sorrow.

Stepping into the foyer the sense of heartbreak was palpable. I was gently greeted by an event organizer who let me know what to expect, set the tone, and handed me a paper that explained our friend's disease and suggested ways to be of help. In the hall there were ample refreshments to one side; a large banner and markers for spontaneous art and notes of support were set up along a far wall. People were visiting and talking softly, leaning in with laughter, hugs, and tears. There were a few rows of chairs, and a line that doubled back twice and wound through improvised stanchions, with folks waiting their turn to visit with the Honoree.

I mingled for a bit, then sat on a bench along the wall where I could take it all in. The Honoree was in a far corner of the room, comfortably enthroned and cared for as a steady stream of loving pilgrims, her "legion of outlaws," came to pay their respects. The few rows of chairs set facing this scene were mostly empty; the people who did sit turned their chairs away, I suspect because it was so tenderly excruciating to watch. Even as people came and went, it seemed there was always a hundred eating and mingling, or chatting in the serpentine line.

As I watched I found myself keenly aware of the small group who were making the room work. There was the gentle door keeper I'd encountered on my way in. A couple were serving food, keeping tea and coffee flowing on a cold winter afternoon. There was a gatekeeper at the head of the line, who made sure each person stepping up to visit the Honoree understood what to expect of the encounter with our very changed friend. There were the two or three people flanking the Honoree, making sure she was not exhausted by the whole thing, taking breaks when she asked and keeping the show rolling. And then there were a few who stood to support visitors as they came away from saying this difficult goodbye.

It was a three hour event. I arrived at the end of the first hour and, so I could learn, stayed until the Honoree was carried off and the floor was swept. It gave me time to consider what I was witnessing. I am betting that very few of the hundreds of folks who showed up had known what to expect when they came through the door. And while it makes sense that a community that throws an annual Misfit Prom is one that is more practiced with showing up for the unexpected, what I witnessed in people's responses encourages me that a living wake can be a positive experience for any family/community who wants to hold one.

The organizing group had chosen to keep the proceedings simple. With the exception of a spontaneous song offered at the very close of festivities there was nothing that a Celebrant would think resembled a cohesive group 'moment'. Sometimes not convening a formal sacred space is the best way to give everyone's groove room for expression. This was a celebration of the Honoree's individual connection with each of us rather than an opportunity for the comfort we find in rituals of communal grief. Watching over the course of a few hours it was clear that each visitor came away feeling they were beloved; satisfied that their own moment was one of authentic connection. Have I mentioned yet how unexpected and remarkable this was to witness?

The emotional tone of a living wake has a completely different flavor than a wake after death. This was an event that most people had no previous experience of, and etiquette and social norms were not traditionally established. This was not Auntie Rosa's shindig in the parlor, or Uncle Pat's wake at the pub. This was not visiting hours at the local Funeral Home the night before a religious service. There was no body, no urn, only the very alive and immensely changed person we worked and lived and loved with, and now were losing. What I heard from the person who was the gatekeeper at the head of the line was that it required his vigilance to remind people that this was a chance to connect and say goodbye, rather than a talent show or benefit performance to help her get better.

I too stood in line to say good bye. I had been watching for almost an hour by then and decided this might better be called a festival of life than a living wake. I came to the gatekeeper and asked him how it was going. He told me that each person had their own interpretation of what it meant to be in the room and each person had their own story of the Honoree. Some thought they had a remedy for this incurable disease and he had to remind them we were here to say goodbye. He told me that most every one carries their hopes, except for some who come empty handed, and a few who seem like they have left everything behind. He said that over and over again through the day he watched hearts breaking as visitors transitioned from the anticipation of loss to the realization of what dying looks like.

And then I stepped over the threshold myself. Her attendants had made her chair a throne of cushions to rest on and as I approached we were both showered in rose petals. Someone nearby held a unicorn balloon for ambiance. We had a minute or three, I couldn't tell you, to touch each other's faces and lean in close. For me to say thank you for your existence and the blessing of friendship. To look so deeply into each other's eyes and to trust and savor the connection there. And then I walked away, letting the comfort crew know I was going to be fine. I left a doodle on the banner and then took my place again on the bench, where I could watch the room and chat with whoever took a seat next to me.

Not every person touches so many lives so deeply. Not every community can sustain a three hour unscripted event that brings hundreds of people to individually say goodbye to someone dying of a brain-robbing disease. At the end of the day every one was exhilarated, and wrung out. One thing I learned about a living wake is that after the room is swept up and the festivities are over, the person who is ill and their caregivers are still in the deep day-to-day of dying. There is potential for some let down that they should be prepared to experience and be supported through.

I will be surprised if I am ever called on to coordinate a living wake involving as many people or as seemingly unstructured as this, but it sure set a high bar. Having witnessed a festival of life on a grand scale it is not hard to imagine it working well in more modest, less public circumstances. The most important thing I learned is that the purpose of a living wake is making space for the Honoree to have meaningful connection with as many, or few, of the people they want to share that connection with.

In our work as Celebrants, Doulas, Funeral Directors, Clergy, and other end-of-life professionals, we are accustomed to walking with the folks in our care through the early valleys of their loss and grief. Each of us has had to find ways to navigate the confessions of complex regret we hear at the edges of the room over what people have left unsaid in their relationships. I was curious to see how having the opportunity to meaningfully say goodbye might effect these overheard conversations, and was moved to hear many people saying different versions of the phrase, “I'm so glad to have this chance...”.

Not every family is ready to organize a living wake as a loved one is preparing to shuffle off the mortal coil. Not every person preparing for death has the energy for such a public undertaking. Overall, I came away feeling like I have a better sense of what to ask the dying person, what to ask family members, and how to accommodate the needs of visitors and family while giving preference to the wishes of the Honoree so that their version of a festival of life will fit just right.

There are new funeral traditions being forged. Some of it may sound a bit alarming at first; living wakes, home funerals, the return to natural burial. End-of-life and after-death professionals can play vital roles in these changing practices because we bring competence, expertise, and care to our client families and communities in a time of loss and confusion. If a person says they'd like to try something new and different, I want to be there to say with confidence, “A living wake? Sure, we can make that work.” If you want to share experiences, brainstorm, or just need support, please be in touch.

Here are five things to consider when planning a living wake:

Setting: Home or Away?

If attendance will be modest, home may be the best option. If attendance will be greater and the Honoree is able to travel and can accommodate commotion, a favorite outdoor location or other venue might be considered.

Tone: Festive, Somber, or Something Completely Different?

What mood does the Honoree want people to encounter when they arrive? What's the sound track? Party? Sacred? All of the above? And very importantly, how will the Honoree let caretakers know if/when they've had enough and need a break.

Placement: Public or Private?

Does the Honoree want to be in public view, screened, or in a separate space from the general hubbub? In the situation I describe there were so many people participating that being in the open kept every one aware of the others waiting, it helped with momentum. If I were planning a more intimate event it could be appropriate to consider the value in providing for the Honoree and guests to have private space.

Group activities?

Singing together, walking a labyrinth, stringing beads, making cookies, decorating a banner, coffin, or shroud… A little art therapy is a great help for carrying grief during a living wake. After being in the proximity of death the chance to be close to one another, to move together, and to leave a bit of beauty behind provides a threshold so we can step again into the stream of life.

Food: Home Made, Potluck, or Catered?

A living wake is a chance to say goodbye, and like all activities involving grief this is hungry work for the Honoree, their caretakers, and their guests. Food brings comfort to the day; keep it simple, make it nourishing. And if your tone is festive, make the meal a festival.

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