Saturday, January 9, 2010

Home Wakes – A Wedding Dress—Keeping Death Before One’s Eyes

As I grow older and I look back on life experiences, it seems natural to me to wonder why certain things happened and how certain happenings formed me, as a person, my way of thinking, and even my way of living.

What particularly gives me the incentive to write on the topic that I have chosen this time is an entry in Molly Suing’s blog- - Tuesday, Ocotber 27, 2009 – entitled – Irish Views on Death, Life and Work. Molly and her husband, Ben, are spending a year in Ireland. Molly and Ben ( Ben-- an alum of MM of 2005) were married this past spring – May of 2009. Molly’s maiden name is Kuhlman. Molly won a scholarship to study abroad and together, she and Ben chose Ireland. For part of Molly’s requirements, she is to keep a journal of her experiences while she is studying there in Dublin, Ireland. Both Molly and Ben have had to find jobs to sustain themselves. Molly, in addition to her studies, works as a nanny for an Irish family there. Again Molly’s blog entry on the death of a member of the family for whom she works, is the impetus of this writing for me. It was the first time in her life that Molly had experienced a home wake—where the deceased person, in the coffin is brought into the home of the family. The wake becomes a type of party and the family and friends tell stories, eat and drink in the company of the deceased. Personally, I think this is a great little story that Molly unfolds. I am sure that Molly will never forget this experience. I, too, have had a similar experience.

My experience goes way back to my early childhood days. Just recently, I was able to pin down exactly how old I was in experiencing this home wake. I have to admit that it is amazing to me that I could remember this from such a young age—I was not yet 5 years old. I was born in January of 1949 and this death experience happened in November of 1953. I have very vivid memories of this experience, like it happened yesterday.

The person who died was Dolores Kuhlman. Yes, that is correct—the same last name as Molly’s—exactly the same. However, to my knowledge they have no blood relation. Dolores was lovingly nicknamed Dolly. She was my mom’s first cousin. But she was a first cousin who was quiet close in many ways. My mom’s mother was a sister to Dolly’s mother and my mom’s father was a brother to Dolly’s father. I supposed one could say that they were doublely related. My mom always spoke tenderly of Dolly.

Dolly died of cancer. In the early 1950’s, the medical field of cancer treatment was not very advanced and there was little that could be done to save Dolly’s life. But the doctors encouraged Dolly to go on with her life. She was engaged to be married to Bernard Kuhlman and they both did go on with their lives. They were married June 15th, 1953. She died in November of that same year—1953. She was buried in her wedding dress. Her wake was in her family’s home – near my home. I was there to view her body. I was there in Dolly’s home to eat with her family. It is all still very clear to me all these years afterwards.

So when Molly spoke about her experience of a home wake, I immediately was reminded of perhaps the first time in my life that I had experienced a death, before the age of five.

What is it that I remember so vividly? Although I was too young to realize that wakes do not always take place in the home of the deceased, but in mortuaries or now even in churches, I do remember feeling a bit surprised that the body of this woman was at her home. But honestly, it felt very natural and not scary or morbid – not at all.

But I must admit that I felt a bit strange when we were invited to eat with the deceased’s family. I remember going to the kitchen to sit down with Dolly’s family to have coffee and cookies. I kept trying to look back into the living room where Dolly was in the coffin. In many ways, it was a striking sight to see Dolly there in her wedding dress. I say striking because it was really beautiful. I remember lots of white and cream colors. Dolly hair was very dark and the contrast of the white was stunning. I suppose I could say that it felt a bit heavenly or celestial.

Also I remember when I was with my mother to go to other wakes after Dolly’s, she had a habit of touching the deceased person. She would take her hand and place it on the hands of the deceased, which are always on top of one another in the coffin. This habit of my mother’s has always made me want to do the same, especially with deceased people to whom I have been very close. I am sure that some people would think that this is very strange and unusual, maybe even morbid. Nonetheless, all of these experiences have formed my attitude towards death.

When I came to Mount Michael and then joined the monastery, I continued to have very pleasant experiences of death. When a monk died in the monastery, his body would be brought to chapel and all of us monks would be there to greet the body. It was very memorable of Dolly Kuhlman’s home wake, something very natural.

Then the monks of Mount Michael decided that we should have wooden coffins that were made here by our carpenter. As a result of this decision, Br. Andrew Sorensen OSB designed a coffin for deceased monks here at the abbey. It is a very simple design. We would like to think that it is very monastic.

When my parents saw this coffin and their first monastic funeral, they wanted to have the same type of coffin when they died, especially my father. But my family went one step further when my parents died, (Dad in 1993- Mom in 2004). My brothers and nephews, especially Jason Hagemann, who has carpentry skills and a carpentry business, made similar coffins for Mom and Dad. In many ways, this whole process was an incredible aid in mourning and grieving together. But I did not realize this until I saw how much the family was a part of the process.

All of these things have formed my attitude toward death. It was very easy for me to accept one of the tools of good works that St. Benedict speaks of in the fourth chapter of his Rule. It is that monks should keep death daily before their eyes. I do know that when some people who are beginning monastic life and study this part of Rule, they feel this a bit strange. It was never strange for me. Death was introduced to me very early in life and it truly felt like death was, indeed, a part of life—a very natural process that we would all have to experience some day. So in many ways my experience of a home wake was just the first step in forming my attitude about death. Perhaps it was already a monastic way of thinking about death and passing on to eternal life.

I will always be grateful that my parents took me to this home wake at a very young age. I will always be grateful for my monastic training in how we should all look forward to the hour of death and passing into eternal life. I can honestly say that I really do not have much fear in that regard. And lastly, I am grateful to my monastic community for opening up our use of a very simple wooden coffin to the public. Now anyone can have one of these coffins, just like we monks have such an option in entering eternal life.

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