When I first moved to P.E.I., I had never heard of a wake. Well, I had heard of a wake, it just was not the funeral kind. Wake was a verb that my father used on school days when I wasn’t getting out of bed in time to do the essential morning prep before school, and it sounded something like this, “Wake up and get your shower started and don’t use too much water.” Or, “you did not wake up in time for breakfast, so no toast for you.” The usage of the word wake as a noun was something new for me, and to find that this noun was also an event was a bit mind-boggling.
The summer of our wedding, my husband and I attended wakes with his parents almost every weekend. It was a rush to get to the wake on time so you would not have to stand outside in inclement weather while the line of mourners snaked around the outside of the funeral home. Often times, the wake was the only chance to catch up with the locals, one’s neighbours and friends, on who was doing what, with whom and how often. In other words, the wake as an event was much more than just imparting soft words of sympathy to grieving families, it was, and still is, an important social event in the community wherein one is able to, as secondary to offering condolences, catch up on a bit of information and news in the foyer.
In the last week, I attended two wakes, both of which were for people I have never met. It is always interesting going to a wake for someone you meet for the first time in the coffin. There are some very informal, yet absolutely necessary rules one must understand when proceeding to attend a P.E.I. wake. Here is how it all goes down.
First of all, in the event the circumstances of the death are normal, the receiving line is often short enough for a gathering of well-wishers in the lobby. It always helps to have a group to walk in with, especially when you might only know one person in the receiving line. This almost never happens in P.E.I. because usually everyone knows someone you might be distantly related to; but in the event you are “from away” like I happen to be, the chances of not knowing a grieving soul in the funeral parlour astronomically increases. At times like this, it really helps to be married to an Islander. It also is helpful to form a line with people that have the greatest chance of knowing someone on the inside, with the person who is the best acquainted with the family at the forefront. That way, you are able to sneak in behind, on the coat tails of someone with connections, thus reducing the amount of talking required and putting the emphasis rather on the handshake. Which leads me to the all-important viewing of the slideshow.
Of late, there is usually a picture collage and slideshow in the corridor leading into the parlour. The second rule of etiquette for the wake has to do with these photographs and images on display. The slideshow is of utmost importance for those whom have never met the deceased. This is your opportunity to acquaint yourself and get the five minute “history-in-a-nutshell” account of the person’s life so that you might be able to make a fleeting connection in the event the handshake fails. Let me give you an example. Often times, if the deceased was an older person at the time of their expiration, you are able to get snapshots that might date back to sweeter, happier times, like the departed’s childhood. So, you can make reference to the fact, if there happens to be a lull in conversation upon your sympathy offerings, that so-and-so was a sweet little cherub of a dumpling when she was five. And my, how time has flown .
The third understanding of all wake attendees is that one must give some attention to the deceased. It is acceptable for one to view the remains for a moment or two prior to moving along to the receiving line. However, one must never make comment on the price of the casket or urn, as cremation is becoming the custom for Island funerals, in such a way as to draw attention to the fact that so-and-so is being buried in little more than a pine box whilst the extended family is already planning their trip to the Bahamas. Save those conversations for the parking lot.
Upon the viewing, one must needs go through the most difficult of all customs at Island wakes, that of the handshake and condolences to the family. I have been seized in a death-like vice grip by grieving wives of men I have never met. I have hugged sisters and brothers whom I never before laid eyes upon. And, I have watched my husband become enveloped in a stifling embrace, all the while I stood nearby trying to find a place for my eyes to look other than at the spectacle of my husband in another woman’s arms. Such is the custom of the wake. It is all good. One never quite knows what to expect, and thank goodness because how could one ever prepare for the emotional baggage one ends up carrying out with them at the end of this life altering experience?
Finally, there is the etiquette surrounding one’s exit out of the parlour, back into the main lobby. The rule of thumb is this: do not join the receiving line unless you happen to be a member of the family. I have heard of, and even shaken hands with, unsuspecting folks who just happened to sit down for a moment in one of those inviting, over-stuffed chairs to wipe a sweaty brow and dig out the soggy tissues, only to find they have inadvertently joined the receiving line. This is not just an embarrassment but can literally end up putting you and the grieving family on bad terms in very short order. Believe me, I know someone to whom this actually happened. Recently.
One last word of advice, one should never, ever forget that the wake is not over until you are in your car headed for home. Many the thoughtless person has made the mistake of confusing the lobby with the local watering hole or coffee shop and thus over-extended their welcome. Such can be the case when one arrives in a group and uses the time after the viewing to discuss the money one owes to whom for the over-priced flowers on display in the parlour next door; or even more distasteful, to us this time to discuss funny things that might have happened that day or plans one might have for tomorrow. This can be particularly awkward if those plans do not include attending the funeral.
To summarize, the wake as an event is a cultural Island experience, and one cannot say they have truly experienced the Island way until they have made their way to an Island wake. Please note: for those who happen to be from away, prior connections to the deceased are helpful, but not necessary. It is possible to leave a wake with more associations, family or otherwise, than one had when they arrived. As well, one will never use the phrase “wake up and smell the coffee” and other such colloquialisms, again without giving thought to the proper native usage of the term, wake. Of that, you can be certain.