“BY THE WAY, WHO ARE YOU?” or “Are you a family member?” These two questions were often asked by well-wishers at the wake of a dear friend who passed away recently. The questions were directed at a small band of helpers as we busied ourselves distributing refreshments, ushering, collecting love oﬀerings and going about the host of chores that accompany a wake.
The reason for this query is that these tasks are usually performed by family members. After all, they are the most naturally appropriate persons to grief the loss and to receive the condolences of visitors. Yet what happens when there are only a few family members present or if the family is already so saddened by the loss that such responsibilities become an extra weight that they have to bear?
is is where close friends can step in. In my situation, the loss of our beloved Bible study leader prompted the members of our group to come together in a collective endeavour to oﬀer our services. It was as if in helping out, we could in such an act of solidarity, express our love and gratitude to our leader, in return for all the lessons that he had selflessly imparted to us during the past four years as our “rabbi”. It seemed fitting too that we should be present as part of his extended spiritual family to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his family during this time of bereavement.
Our rendering of help was not only motivated by a sense of service. As we went about our duties, each of us was working through our grief in our own way. Perhaps this explains why we often see people stepping forward to help out at wakes, tending to the odds and ends that need to be done. People do want to help, to participate, and make some small contribution, as if the gesture will bring relief to the pain of the loss. So I have concluded that it is good to allow people who are grieving to be helpful in whatever way they know how.
What then of the well-wishers?
In escorting them to the coﬃn so that they can pay their last respects, I have observed a whole range of behaviour. They all come forward solemnly. Some touch the coﬃn, cross themselves. Many say a prayer, take one long last look at their departed friend. A few come alone, bow and leave quietly. Most people, I have found, would want to stay behind and talk. If only someone would listen. But what, you might ask, does one say on such an occasion? I have found that as an usher, some simple words like, “How did you know the deceased?” or “How did you hear about his passing?” help begin a dialogue. With this simple opening, strangers become friends. At least for those few brief minutes, we are united by our common loss.
Death is a sad and solemn event, no matter what your theology might be. But it can also be an event that brings people together. Those who have not met for a long time renew their acquaintance during wakes. Such occasions add to the sense of urgency and remind us that life is brief and that we should make every attempt to stay connected. The fact that we all share in this one common fate unites us as one family. And as family we should do all that we can to care for those who are bereaved.
Benny Bong is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, is a family and marital therapist.