Funeral Homes are so. . . funereal
February 1, 2015 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Have you ever attended a comforting secular wake, a gathering that wasn't a memorial service or shiva, that was held someplace other than a funeral home?

I recently attended two secular wakes at funeral homes with no religious services (and no coffin). In my lifetime, I've attended quite a few, and even organized two, religious wakes and funerals. The package always seems to include the men in suits, walls of stiff overpowering flowers the families would never have in their own homes, the heavy, wall-to-wall drapes, boxes of tissues everywhere. After I offered my condolences at the most recent wake I attended, I looked around and thought: "Couldn't secular wakes take place in a more comforting setting?" (I do think highly of the Jewish shiva custom of receiving guests at home, but not everyone has the space, or the emotional or cultural wherewithal to do that.) Has anyone gone to a wake in a public space that felt comforting and appropriate and wasn't a funeral home?
posted by Elsie to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We held my grandmother's wake/memorial service in the upstairs greenhouse of a public farmer's market. It was bright and warm and airy, and the plants in the greenhouse were a nice alternative to the stuffy funeral home lily arrangements.
posted by coppermoss at 9:25 AM on February 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think pretty much all of the memorials I've been to (or invited to but couldn't attend) were in spaces where you might also have a wedding reception or work event - hotel ballrooms, botanic gardens, museums, small theaters. I've been to a very small one that was in the "private event room" of a restaurant.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:32 AM on February 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I attended a memorial service for a friend held in her backyard, which was a lakeside area. The only flowers were those in her own garden. It was lovely.
posted by tamitang at 9:33 AM on February 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

We recently went to the memorial celebration of a friend of my husband's family. It was held in tavern (76 House) and people met, had a few drinks, and then assembled for a sit down lunch with people getting up and talking about the person who we were remembering that day.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:33 AM on February 1, 2015

Old-school Irish wakes are reknown as raucous parties, often in pubs. And yes, very often, the dead guy is laid out or propped up for all to see.

Another lively funeral tradition is the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral procession and after-party.

Now, neither of these are secular, per se. Both steeped in religiosity. But there's zero sense of the "funereal," so to speak.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:38 AM on February 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

You absolutely can have a memorial service anywhere. I think the issue, though, is that most people want to have the memorial service relatively soon after the death, and if you're renting a place, it can be a challenge to do that at the last minute. Also, not everyone feels up to doing a lot of planning when they're grieving, and funeral homes are set up to do most of the logistical stuff for you. (Similarly, when you're sitting shiva, members of the community are supposed to take care of bringing food and making sure that things are running smoothly, so that the grieving family doesn't have to worry about it.) For that reason, I think a lot of people find it easier to use a funeral home, but there's no reason that you can't rent out a bar or a botanical garden or a non-funeral-home-related reception hall or any other place you like.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:39 AM on February 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

My father's was held in a Salvation army meeting hall. The room was basically a just a pain old hall from the 1950s, with stunning windows. All the guests were encouraged to put stickers or write messages on his closed coffin, viewings aren't really a thing in the part of Australia I'm from.

. The members of the Salvation Army were there, they made cakes, sandwiches and coffees. It was very casual, they offered very religion neutral support to people that might need it. My father was not at all religious, but was helped at a bad point in his life by the Salvos so that's how he wanted it.
posted by wwax at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Restaurants with private rooms are good for this. It's more congenial, you can have some nibbles and perhaps a cocktail and toast and celebrate the departed.

My mother wants a New Orleans procession before arriving at a raucous party.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Depending on how many people you're talking about, something outdoors can be nice. The most meaningful memorial I've ever attended consisted of a group hike to a scenic spot, and then we all sat around and shared memories for a while. People who couldn't do the hike for whatever reason met us at the actual location.
posted by number9dream at 9:46 AM on February 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Of course. Only a tiny minority of memorial services that I've been to have been in actual funeral homes. I've been to ones in parks, on beaches, in bars, restaurants, rented halls, community rooms, houses, backyards, rooftops, and gyms.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:48 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine passed a few years ago and while the "official" funeral/memorial service was held at a funeral home, a secular wake was held in the dining room of a nearby Masonic lodge; basically a gathering of friends and family, with lots of food and reminiscing, smiling and laughing; the tone was very much a celebration of his life and mutual support/comfort amidst the sorrow of his unexpected loss. Definitely a shift in tone and mood from the funeral home. In this case the setting was particularly appropriate and easily arranged as he was a very active Mason, but the space was nothing special; pretty much like any other function room/dining room that community organizations often have available to rent.
posted by usonian at 9:48 AM on February 1, 2015

We held my dad's memorial at a big hotel just outside town (wanted to make sure there was plenty of parking). We'd had a small, private funeral a few days before, just me, my mum, my sister and my grandma - the memorial was for everyone else who wanted to remember him. A few of his friends/colleagues made speeches, we passed around a book of photos and a book for people to write memories in, there was a buffet and a free bar. It was nice, and the hotel did a good job - even though it was a couple of weeks before Christmas, they took down their decorations, and the service was low-key but good (e.g. a waitress brought my grandma coffee from the coffee station because it was clear she couldn't walk far, even though they weren't doing table service per se).

My experience is from the UK, though - it's much more common here to have the funeral itself at a church or a crematorium with a chapel and then go to a hotel/club/hall/someone's house for the reception. Funeral homes here tend to be the place where you plan the funeral (and the place where they keep and prep the corpses), but they don't usually have function rooms attached.
posted by terretu at 9:56 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

My sister was creamated so no viewing of the body. However, we had a lovely lovely memorial celebration at our family's lake house. It was her favorite place. It was a catered affair, lots of people celebrating her life, in a beautiful and serene setting.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:58 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

11 years ago, a dear friend died far too young and the celebration of his life was held at Fairchild Garden in Miami.

It was beautiful and totally not religious.

My brothers recent 'Irish wake' was held in a bar, I'm told. But I wasn't notified of his death until a few days after so I can't say how that went. (And, uh, we're not Irish....)
posted by bilabial at 10:00 AM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I was in college, a friend of mine died. As he had always loved a particular watering hole, that was where we held his official wake. It was a great example of the setting being perfect for the person.

Just yesterday I was having this conversation with my parents and I told them that if I go first, have a big party where people get to make collages, write poetry, and play music. The stuffy and generic wakes aren't for everyone. There are a lot of options to personalize a memorial service.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 10:37 AM on February 1, 2015

We held a wake for my brother, a rabid Sox fan, in the upstairs private-party room of a hugely popular sports bar next to Fenway Park, one of his favorite places. It was held a few months after his death (his body was cremated) for various logistical reasons. It felt like the most meaningful way to memorialize him and his life.
posted by primate moon at 12:14 PM on February 1, 2015

My mom's memorial was in the private room of a restaurant that had hosted other, happier family events. I've attended other memorials at parks and private homes.
posted by leslies at 12:15 PM on February 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sidenote: Elsie, can you explain what the difference between a wake and a memorial service is? Your question seems to differentiate the two, but I've always used them interchangeably.
posted by coppermoss at 12:25 PM on February 1, 2015

My dad's was in a cowboy bar. The jukebox played all his favorites, including George Jones. My late MIL's was at the Yale Club. I think I've been at more memorials and wakes outside of funeral homes or churches than I have inside these places.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:09 PM on February 1, 2015

We had my mom's memorial service at The Asistencia Mission. Family members spoke and there was a room and courtyard for sandwiches and salads.
posted by crw at 1:27 PM on February 1, 2015

Response by poster: In my experience, a wake is a gathering of family and friends, often at a funeral home, in advance of church ceremony. Sometimes a clergy official will come to say a prayer, but the wake is the time to share condolences. I think of a memorial as an event where people who knew the deceased give eulogies. And sometimes the two are mixed--there's the social gathering--the wake--with some eulogies and perhaps a prayer.
posted by Elsie at 2:13 PM on February 1, 2015

For my late husband (suicide @ 37 years) we had it in my backyard. No coffin, but a few of us made quite 'official' speeches, then we had finger food and people hung around for drinks.

A few of his friends were upset when I announced my plans, yet after the event everyone agreed how perfect it was and also exactly how he would have wanted his life celebrated. I have no regrets.
posted by Youremyworld at 3:31 PM on February 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm a Jew. My paternal grandparents had their funerals at a cemetery and then we went to my uncle's.

I held a memorial for the star poet from my year at IA 3 months after her death at Poet's House in NY. Her mentor led the introduction and the rest of us read her poems and shared memories.
posted by brujita at 3:59 PM on February 1, 2015

I've seen informal wakes at friends' houses, and, actually, in literature and other situations, I've always heard of wakes (that is, the private meeting of friends and family) being held at home. It's an opportunity for people to bring casseroles en masse. I've attended several secular memorial services in non-traditional settings, like arty warehouses or restaurant rooms.
posted by linettasky at 6:33 PM on February 1, 2015

From my own experience (I spent most of my mom's memorial service with a Kleenex in front of my face): the traditional, funeral-home, time-honored traditions were welcome. (Later that night I got totally smashed at the wake and wound up spending most of the night in the guest bathroom over the toilet, so I'm glad my dad was there so the grandparents didn't worry about where I/he/we were.)

There's something to be said for letting oneself fall into the cultural traditions. There can be a real benefit to acknowledging that one's own personal grief is part of a much larger, human experience.
posted by Lexica at 6:44 PM on February 1, 2015

It's long been the practice in my family (my father's side at least) to host a gathering after the funeral service, where tons of food and drink are consumed. The party is always at someone's home, often the bereaved family's home.

(As an aside, we had to purchase a pre-paid funeral plan for my mother last summer. As part of the planning, the funeral home could provide catered luncheons and full-on dinner service, including bar service, following the funeral service.)
posted by Thorzdad at 3:22 AM on February 2, 2015

I had a colleague pass away several years ago, and the memorial service was held a few weeks after this death in a large room here on campus (in the alumni center, it's gorgeous). We had a large picture of him up front, and people took turns telling stories, and it was standing room only, and we all cried, and it was perfect. His life was this university (and riding trains, and his wife), and we couldn't have done it differently.
posted by joycehealy at 11:29 AM on February 2, 2015

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