October 28, 2013
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Edmonton's Sacred Heart Parish is a unique Catholic community where rituals meaningful to native culture are incorporated into the Catholic rites.

Common in First Nations and Metis cultures, a wake is an opportunity for people to view the deceased's body and to swap stories about his or her life.

"A wake is a chance for the family to get together and talk about old times, to talk about the person. A wake is a time of reflecting and looking back on the person's life. It's a way of dealing with the death in a unique, special way," said Father Jim Holland, pastor at Sacred Heart.

He estimated that about 60 per cent of the funerals at the church include a wake. It is a rite that focuses on the notion that the loss impacts a whole social group. Family and friends can get together and support each other.

"In the native community, most of the time there will be two nights. They normally light a sacred fire in the beginning, and the fire will go day and night until the burial. They stay up all night," Holland said.

There is an urban legend that people are at a wake in case the deceased person wakes up. This is false, he said.

The term "wake" refers to a late-night prayer vigil, although over time the association with prayer has become less significant. It is now used for the social interactions and collective mourning.

LONG WAITS

Before motorized vehicles, people travelled many miles by horse and wagon. Waiting a long time for people to arrive for the funeral, others would stay up with the deceased body.

"Because of the number of funerals we have, we cannot afford to have two-night wakes," said Holland, noting that a one-night wake is typical now.

Over the years, the church has established specific rules for wakes. Instead of all-nighters, people can only visit the body until 11 p.m.

As well, some mourners used to light a fire outside of the church, but that is no longer permitted due to city bylaws. However, such rituals are still performed on most reserves.

Fran Funk, a Metis woman from Fort Smith, said wakes in her community sometimes last two or three days.

"We have prayers and Gospel readings and the rosary. A lot of people come and bring their music, and there's singing of aboriginal songs and spiritual songs, as well as church hymns that are appropriate," said Funk.

AT-HOME WAKE

She said a wake typically occurs in the home of the deceased or in a hall with the body present. Some modern wakes are even held at a funeral home or in the church.

"There is a lot of socializing, and there's always food, coffee and tea. Family and friends get together and talk about the person who's gone, just to get connected again, kind of a final mutual goodbye," she said.

First Nations and Metis people may choose a casket with aboriginal designs, especially if the ceremony includes an open casket.

"A wake is a time to prepare to say your goodbyes at the funeral. We've done wakes for years in our community, and it's just a way to say goodbye and for family to get together," said Funk.