Reflections from the Front: In Praise of the Open Casket Wake
In the Philippine Islands, where I grew up, when a family member died, the family would place the body in a casket, with the face visible for viewing, and hold a public mourning period for nine days in the home. While the word Novena may be used to mean praying for nine straight hours, it can also be used to mean praying consecutively for nine straight days. Neighbors, friends, family would stop by, pay their respects, weep, pray and commiserate with the family for nine days prior to burial.
In Judaism, “sitting shiva” is a seven day process during which one mourns deeply and publicly for a parent, sibling, spouse or child. Family and friends attend to the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of the bereaved, and members of the community drop by the house of the surviving family members for short “shiva calls” which have specified styles and forms of shiva grieving.
Many kind people streamed by the caskets of my father, mother, and later on, my wife on the days prior to each of their burials. It was good to hear from various people of the kind things these loved ones had done, unbeknownst to us, that had touched the lives of others. It was also good to hear encouraging words from the Body of Christ. It was good to explain to children that they would see their teacher again, with a strong new body, in a much better place.
Recently, I heard of a local devout Christian man, who strongly desired to be cremated, and wanted no one to view his body. Pictures of Larry, at an earlier, healthier time, were displayed at the funeral. He said he didn’t want anyone to remember him as he had become, but as he had been. While I could empathize with his feelings, I felt he was missing a powerful opportunity.
When I die, I want to have an open casket wake. I want people to see that I don’t look nearly as strong, young, and handsome as I once was. I have already lost a lot of ground, and will certainly lose more before I die. I want people to recognize that for most of them, this same process will occur. But this isn’t really so sad; it is a part of God’s plan for our physical lives. We grow, we flourish, we wane, we die, and we are born to eternal life. My wasted body and aged visage will be a vivid reminder that this is not the end. We are not home yet. God has big plans for us! The resurrection changes everything!
And hopefully some of them will have nice stories to share with my children.