Artful Aging

Wakes and Vigils: The Why and How of Good Grief

Wakes and vigils provide a place, a time and an organic ‘how’ to help in dealing with the mystery of death

And since it falls upon my lot that I should raise
and you should not, I raise a glass and boldly call,
           may love and peace be with us all.
The Parting Glass, Traditional Irish Wake Toast

Imagine a gathering of friends and family, dressed in common clothes, gathered around a low table in a familiar, comfortable, casual environment. Each with a glass of beer, whiskey or tea, hand raised to the ceiling, toasting the guest of honor.

Good Grief
We gather to celebrate; we gather to grieve. A wake is an age-old way of honoring a person’s dying. The open format of being in a home with several rooms allows for flexibility to process the loss. A place to cry and express grief, to be alone with the dead, to be with others to share stories, to celebrate and toast their accomplishments and their struggles. With no time keeper like at a busy funeral home, you have the time you need to be in your grief process, either at the side of the dead or in the kitchen.

Seeing is Believing
The human animal is visually dependent. We are hardwired to be a see-it-to-believe-it critter. This leads to an internal conflict in our grief process when we have not actually seen the body of our dead. Intellectually we know that they died. We went to the funeral, we saw the box, we saw the grave. But if we didn’t see the actual body, our visually dependent animal mind says that it never really happened. This leads to a blockage in the somatic (body-mind) process of grief and loss.

How is it done?
Usually, the loved one is laid out at home on a massage table beautifully draped in lovely cloths. Dry ice is placed under their back to prevent the body from breaking down too quickly. There is a side table full of memorial items: flowers, candles, pictures, mementos, spiritual objects, cards, and sometimes whiskey. The kitchen is full of potluck dishes, a pot of tea and mugs of coffee. Sometimes
it’s a blessing or two, sometimes it’s a harpist or a guided meditation. Sometimes it’s fiddle tunes and laughter to the point of tears. The vigil or wake matches the character of the person’s life.

Many spiritual traditions around the world believe it takes up to three days for the spirit or soul to fully leave the body. A wake or vigil allows for that time to pass with the body witnessed and undisturbed. It allows for integrating the body, mind and spirit of the deceased and the people left behind. Wakes and vigils provide a place, a time and an organic ‘how’ to help in dealing with the mystery of death. In a nutshell: see, toast, and cry for your dead at home.

Ashley T Benem, Death Midwife, LMP and Minister, is the founder of the non-profit A Sacred Passing: Death Midwifery Service and the creator of The Art of Death Conference. She is an advocate for palliative and end-of-life care issues, empowering and supporting families to reclaim their right to die in congruence with their lives. Contact Ashley at