Last month, my wife and I left work one evening and drove two hours in the deepening dusk, headed to the wake of an elderly loved one who had surprised us all by dying in her sleep.
I knew that we’d arrived when we rolled into a familiar farm town and turned onto a dark street. The only real light on the block came from a single building, bright within, that announced itself as the funeral home.
In rural communities, before convenience stores, fast-food chains and big-box markets came along, a funeral home was about the only business open after dark. Its light was a hopeful counterpoint to the grimness of loss, an expression of quiet resolve against the night.
Even earlier in the life of the country, wakes had a sense of the heroic. A body would be laid out in the home of the grieving, and mourners kept vigil until dawn. Before electricity, when a candle or oil lamp was the only answer to the black hours between sunset and dawn, such a vigil was an extravagant gesture — a way to say that even in the presence of death, darkness wouldn’t have the last word.
True darkness has been tamed since then. Not far from the funeral home we visited a gas station, as brilliant as a space ship, which boasted illuminated islands where motorists could fill up. On Main Street, the town had its obligatory golden arches eternally aglow. Even the small places of America don’t fully sleep after dark anymore. With that change, the idea of wakes has changed, too.
We no longer stay up all night with a body, and if we did, it’s not likely that anyone would really notice. Much of the country — much of the world, in fact — is up all night, anyway. In a culture conditioned by the internet, the planet seems to live 24 hours a day with its eyes open.
Funeral wakes today call us to a different kind of witness. It’s the idea that for a small time, we can be fully aware of one thing, and one thing only: the loss of another human. The progress that’s chased away physical darkness has made it harder for us to focus. It’s why the sustained attention we still bring to grieving families has heightened meaning.
All of this came to mind as I stood in line with other mourners to write my name in the guest book. We all seemed to be signing something deeper — a social contract setting us apart from the distractions of the world we’d just left in the parking lot.
We silenced our cellphones and joined a circle of grief. In doing so, we felt, in the shadow of that loss, more fully alive. It’s the kind of connection I’ve resolved to cultivate, even without a death in the family to remind me what really matters.