In the fifties it was becoming common for wakes to be held in "Funeral Parlors” instead of the homes of the deceased. These establishments were not the elaborate buildings we know today, with cable TV in the lounge and valet parking. Rather they were usually converted residences, and as such, a congregation of smaller rooms. The smell of flowers was overpowering as you entered. Like today, the deceased was at the front of the room in an open coffin…closed coffins were rare except at mob funerals....bullet holes, you know.
The first wake I ever remember attending was for our first grade teacher, Miss Langin. Compared to Italian wakes, this was a hushed and dignified affair. They just marched us six-year-olds past the coffin for a quick viewing. Poor Miss Langin was way past the normal retirement age for a teacher; I suspect she didn’t have much else to do, and teaching was her life. I remember that she looked so peaceful in a pale blue dress and more makeup than she would ever wear when she was alive. Not so bad, I thought.
My next experience with death was not so pleasant. I attended Our Lady of Lourdes school in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. In the basement of the church, there was a “crypt” where parish priests who died would be buried. For some bizarre reason, every year they opened the crypt and took all the kids, class by class, down there to pray. The first time we went down, a few giggles erupted to mask the fear of young boys exposed to eerie surroundings. The deceased were in what I can only describe as “drawers” along both sides of the wall. There was a small chapel for prayer. Jeez, talk about being creeped-out; fifteen minutes down there was like an eternity, no pun intended.
Anyhow, back to Italian wakes. For most people, quietly paying your respects to the family, and maybe saying a brief prayer at the casket constituted a “standard grieving visit”. For Italians, especially some of the old timers, this wasn’t enough. They would make a dramatic entrance, moaning and shrieking even before they left the parking lot. They would then literally hurl themselves toward the casket hollering “Take me with you Angelo, take me with you.” (Other visitors at the wake would be hoping that Angelo would somehow grant this request.) As if this wasn’t upsetting enough for the family, they would then be subjected to crocodile tears, garlicky kisses and more wailing: “ Why him, why poor Angelo”. At this point I’d be thinking: “Yeah, why not YOU, moron.”
Ironically, these blubbery displays would usually be put on by some distant cousin who barely knew the deceased. They were hypocritical “professional mourners” who turned their grief on and off like a faucet. Five minutes later they would be telling jokes to Aunt Tessie in the smoking lounge. At the cemetery, their performance would be repeated. Every family had these mourners with their black dresses pressed and ready to go. Usually, their first words after the deceased was in the ground were: “Where are we eating?”
I like today’s wakes better. No screamers, less gloom and doom, lots of pictures of the deceased in happier times. I love the Irish tradition of celebrating the dearly departed's life. There's even a drink called an "Irish Wake", and here's how to make it:
1/4 Cup Rum, gold (Bacardi)
1/4 Cup Rum, overproof/151 proof (Bacardi 151)
1/4 Cup Curacao, blue
16 oz. Orange Juice
Red and green maraschinos cherries
Pour orange juice into a tall glass filled with ice. Add rums and stir. Then add blue curacao and top with red and green cherries.
That’s for me….have a party when I go, and if you can, remember me kindly. Cheers.
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