When my father died in 1959 it was the custom in our neck of the woods to hold a wake for the deceased. Somebody was designated to sit up all night, never to leave the coffin unattended. As was often the case back then, my father’s coffin was in our living room from the time the mortician finished his job until the funeral two days later. All that time someone, usually family members, would be expected to stay close by, taking turns, two or three at a time talking quietly, maybe making coffee in the middle of the night.
As a sixteen-year-old I didn’t really question why we did this. It was simply the way things were done. It was no problem for us since our family was so big and, in fact, it was an honor to be part of a group who “sat up” with my Dad. It was a way of showing him respect even though he was gone from his body.
As I said, our family was large, not only Mom and Dad’s own ten children but the extended family of relatives some of whom we young ones didn’t even know. Neighbors were in and out of the house bringing gorgeous casseroles, cakes, stuffed eggs and salads. We never seemed to be alone which was sometimes frustrating to me. I hungered for the intimacy of our very own family. It didn’t seem right to cry in front of people I hardly knew.
With so many people coming and going, no one at first noticed this one little wiry woman who simply sat quietly with her hands in her lap except for occasions when food was set on the table. Though others came and went she stayed in the corner she’d chosen from the beginning. We began to question each other about which relative this might be. She was very solemn, speaking only when spoken to. All day and night she kept her vigil, always partaking of cake or anything that was available, otherwise just sitting there.
Mamma realized we were puzzling about the identity of this woman. She, who was wise from many years of wakes and funerals, already knew who the stranger was. It seemed she had been talking to her when none of us noticed.
Mamma told us this woman was a mourner, no relation to any of us, not a member of our church, not a neighbor, just a self-appointed mourner. In fact, she lived ten or fifteen miles away in an abandoned cabin. Mamma didn’t know how she’d gotten to our house.
“Be kind to her,” Mamma told us. “She has little to eat at home and she goes to wakes to help people mourn and to get food.”
As I remember it, the little woman left before the funeral. I was too caught up in my grief to notice her slip away and start her long walk back to her cabin.
We have sometimes laughed about the interesting little woman at the wake. Did she have her ear to the ground to learn whenever there was a death and head towards the wake? Was this all she did, help people mourn so she could enjoy the abundance of food?
I’ve always remembered, along with the curiosity about the little woman, Mamma’s words about her. “Be kind to her,” she said. Even in her grief, it was of paramount importance to Mamma that we practice hospitality.
Use hospitality one to another without grudging. I Peter 4:9