Magazine | February 25, 2019, Issue

Life of the Party

(Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

The last wake I went to was downtown, in the neighborhood once bohemian, now spottily expensive, still showing a few ethnic survivals: the bank with Cyrillic signage, the church with the bust of the Polish pope outside, the funeral parlor itself — Italian surname, with a notice that it also serves Jews.

Wakes can be jolly affairs. The classic account of Boston’s experiment with busing told the story of a newly assigned cardinal, of Portuguese stock — a people who regard death as the great occasion of loss from which Christ saves us — arriving at his first wake among his new parishioners, already shedding passionate tears, only to be offered a shot of whiskey by one of the deceased’s relatives. This wake was not so frisky — funeral homes I imagine are not allowed to serve drinks — but it still bustled with life. Like a train station, the funeral home has a message board on its ground floor, giving directions to that day’s departures. Ours occupied the second story, up a steep staircase. Everyone was there: widow, sons, employees, customers — all, such was the late man’s personality, friends (he had a temper on him, but still greater warmth). The days of mourning dress are long gone. Most came as we were: (self-employed and small) business casual. The talk was of condolence and memory, and the volume lower than normal, but the body language of the talkers was not unlike that in any other gathering, a reception or a social, except that in this gathering there were rows of chairs for those who wished to sit and think, and the casket.

Open casket or closed casket is one of the great divides. The closed casket is formal and final, like the grave itself: lid down. The open casket is final in its own way too, offering a last look, which is simultaneously and unignorably no look at all: this miracle of wiring, hydraulics, and spirit is a shell; life will never return to it, without serious intervention. The mortician’s art, so careful as to detail, so inadequate in affect, underlines the point: This is not Grammy or Sis or the only other person on earth who understood that particular in-joke, but an effigy.

More lifelike was the flat screen projecting a series of photos taken over the years: reflections only, but reflections of the real thing: smiling, posing, doing. The big museum has a collection of portraits painted on the coffins of Coptic Christians in the first and second centuries a.d., extraordinarily vital: You feel you know these people — he was so young, she was a looker. Now, thanks to the smart phone, everyone can display dozens.

One common theme, generally handled humorously, in talking about the just-dead is that they may now be doing what or behaving as they did on earth. It is a regular feature of editorial-page cartoons noting the deaths of celebrities (sound stages in the sky, that kind of thing). We have not thought of all the implications. There — somewhere — is Ulfric, herding swine as he did in tenth-century Mercia? Homo erectus, breaking into the nests of termites to harvest the larvae? The unborn, in eternal amniotic fluid? One idea of the early Church was that we the dead would ever be 33 years old, Christ’s age on the cross — a regression for many of us, a surprising promotion for others (you mean I skipped puberty?). But will we really still be doing the same old? Or singing in the choir, now visible? All specifics, including Dante’s, are misdirections from our utter inability to conceive eternity, either with or without us. One English friend of mine, who with his nation’s characteristic refusal to commit to any definite idea, including atheism, calls himself an agnostic, says he expects his afterlife to be “very quiet.” But he knows that is only a quip, not a description. If a tree doesn’t fall in the woods, and no one is listening, is it silence?

Coincidentally the funeral home is next door to one of the few remaining private burial grounds on the island at the heart of the city, the interior of a block laid out when this neighborhood was (it was thought, wrongly) becoming fashionable. Fashion moved on, the fashionable dead remained. I once attended an annual meeting of the stakeholders as a journalist, where I overheard one of them describing a typewriter he had found that had a “III” key, the better to address correspondents with ye olde names.

Jews must be interred the day after they pass. This can cause unseemly haste. I went to one burial in a necropolis in a nearby state, where there were three eulogies: one by me, reading the words of a daughter who felt too grieved to do it herself; one by an oafish son-in-law, who spoke of what the dead man’s death had meant to him; and one by a rent-a-rabbi, who gave the same grave-bound pep talk he had probably already delivered three times that day. I understood the daughter, gave the rabbi the benefit of the doubt (he was only doing his harried job). The son-in-law I was glad never to have to see again.

Afterwards, instead of wakes with coffins, open or closed, Jews sit shiva. Friends and family come and go, talk of the absent, talk to each other. The number of the obnoxious — of whom there are always some — is generally surpassed by the number who are mensches. Each of us takes the last walk alone, but survivors like to stick together.

Sitting shiva is like an extended wake, but instead of whiskey or nothing, there is food. Lots of it. Christianity is obviously related to Judaism, since the Mass or Communion consists of eating. But it is a poor — or if you like spiritual — relation; you will never feel full from wafers. You can from smoked fish though. The idea is akin to the cardinal’s shot after all. We’re still here. Party on. 

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Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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