pexels andrea piacquadio 3768131

Embracing the living wake

We sat in the oncologist’s office digesting the news.  Treatment had not worked as hoped and so there we were now looking at palliative care.  This I knew plenty about, so we walked out together and went into the city, calling in to our favourite bar overlooking the river.  The conversation went like this:

"What do you want to do most over the next few months?"

"Plan everything well so no-one is left with a mess."

"What are you most distressed about?"

"Leaving everyone behind and missing the only decent party I will ever have."

"Why will you miss it?"

"Well I’ll be dead."

"How about you hold it before you die then?"

A few wines later and it was a done deal, the best party would be had, and she was not going to miss it.  In her 39 years of life, Ann* had been too busy either looking after her siblings (her mum had died very young), or travelling with work to hold a party of any size.  So, we planned, she was a great details person and we seriously organised.  Decorations, words that held meaning to her, a guest list full of her favourite people, family, friends from far and wide, others who she wanted to thank, people who had made a difference in her life.  All were invited, and almost all came.  Catering, people to serve, a bar, cocktails…it was glamorous and gorgeous and we laughed and cried and celebrated together.  She got changed three times so she could show off all her new party clothes (it was hard to just pick one outfit, Melbourne has so many great stores) and over the next few days we talked over every detail and she said over and over how she couldn’t have wished for a better send off.

Six months later, when she died, peacefully at home in her bed, with me beside her, I reflected on the power of that “Living Wake” and how much it had meant to Ann and all the people that were there.  And I wondered why more people don’t have one, even though I also knew – the whole silence around death and dying, the fear, the lack of confidence, and so much more.

Since that time, I have talked to many people through my work with Hospice and in the community in general, about planning for end of life and encouraged them to think about the possibility of celebrating their life before they actually die.  Writing their stories and hearing them shared with people they love, enjoying the gathering of those who are important to them and holding a ceremony whilst present has been something that is seen as a true gift once experienced.  In the beautiful book “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom he describes Morrie’s experience after attending a colleague’s funeral. 

What a waste,” he said.  “All those people saying all those wonderful things and Irv never got to hear any of it.” 

Morrie had a better idea.  He made some calls.  He chose a date.  And on a cold Sunday afternoon, he was joined in his home by a small group of friends and family for a “living funeral”.  Each of them spoke and paid tribute to my old professor.  Some cried.  Some laughed.  One woman read a poem…. Morrie cried and laughed with them.  And all the heartfelt things we never get to say to those we love, Morrie said that day.  His “living funeral” was a rousing success. 

“Talking about Death Won’t Kill You” by Virginia Morris is another wonderful resource that helps us understand and normalise our fears around death, and encourages us to have the hard (and maybe scary) conversations so we can live well, even in the face of death.  Facilitating a Living Wake/Funeral as a Celebrant may seem daunting to some, my experiences have taught me that the ability to find balance between the sorrow and joy is easier when the person who we are talking about is actually present. 

My idea for Ann’s celebration did not come out of thin air, in fact a few days before that appointment at the oncologist I had heard Mitch Albom speak at a conference.  So, he inspired me, or maybe it was Morrie speaking through him. Ann was brave enough to take the idea and run with it (actually quite literally at times!) and so what if we as Celebrants start sharing the idea more widely.  What if we speak at any group that will have us, run community workshops, write blogs like this one and spread the word – let’s embrace living wakes/funerals! 

Josie Scott vcanz


Tuesdays with Morrie Mitch Albom, Pub Hodder (1998) ISBN 0 7336 0955 4

Talking About Death Won’t Kill You, Virginia Morris Workman Publishing, New York (2001) ISBN 0 7611 1231 6