A dear friend's dad passed away in December. I drove up to northern Vermont a few days before Christmas to attend the wake. I anticipated feeling somewhat awkward, as I always feel a bit odd in the presence of a corpse — albeit one dressed up and patted with makeup to appear dapper. But I did not anticipate the gift this ancient ritual offered.
When I first arrived, my friend gestured to the open casket and said, "That's not the dad I knew. He didn't look like that." She encouraged me to go into the side parlor to see the slideshow of her dad that she and her siblings had put together. An avid hunter and fisherman, her father was seen in photo after photo posing with his catch or his bounty: trout, elk, deer, moose and even some more exotic fare like swordfish. I saw weathered boats, slouching hunting camps and dented cars and trucks — all whose sole purpose seemed to be allowing this man to commune with nature and wrestle sustenance from it.
The roses on the blonde wooden coffin were stunning, a crimson so bold and lush that they paired perfectly with the guttural French that burst in fits and starts from the gathered mourners:
"Ah, oui! Tres bien!" This earthy French Canadian lilt belongs to hardscrabble farmers of Northern Vermont. It's not the smooth tone of the cosmopolitan Parisians. The room pulsed with cackles and wisecracks. I overheard my friend commenting on her dad's accident, "Well, he sure went out with a bang! That was fitting."
I sat quietly and watched the customs and protocol. The children of the deceased, all dressed in black, lined up in front of their father's coffin to welcome the guests. My friend looked intently as each mourner approached, and she'd reach back years, sometimes decades, to find a memory to which she could match the face before her. Once identified, she would fling her arms wide in greeting and then, post-hug, she'd offer the mourner to her sister, all the while explaining context and history.
They streamed in all evening — some in suits, some in sweats. A baby slept through all the commotion, another one practiced toddling on her unsure 9-month-old legs — her young father clearly grateful for the distraction. She gave him license to wander away from the casket and the conversations.
Because we are true friends and openly share both life's wondrous quality and its bile, I know so much about her experience in this family. And because we are all flawed, and we all let loved ones down and disappoint and enrage, I accept there is always that which is not said — memories that will not be shared and conversations not swapped — not out of veneration for the dead, but out of deference for the living. Those left behind must fashion an understanding and acceptance of shortcomings; the controversies and conflicts will remain, to be sure, but the customs and ritual allow us to hold it all with an imperfect respect and honesty.
Yes, there were moments of uncertainty as to what to do or say, but I emerged from the wake with a much more complete sense of my friend, the family in which she grew up, and the culture that shapes and frames her life.
As I sat and watched the family, I caught a moment of stunning clarity: the three sisters all folded their arms and leaned casually in the same way — with hips slightly popped and chins cocked in an air of curiosity and irreverence. It was the ethereal and mystical quality of families captured in the midst of mourning.