One after another, those of the condolence queue,
wearing whatever passes now for sunday clothes,
snake across the chapel carpet to review
the body.  Say how sorry.  Look morose.

Those of the right religion stop and kneel.
Some even reach to touch the corpse, who dare
to know how a dead hand might feel,
then cross themselves and murmur a small prayer.

A parish priest arrives to lead the rosary;
the lapsed, the unbelievers, sneak out for a smoke.
Who sent which flowers?  We must nose and see.
A distant relative retells his funeral joke.

At ten the undertaker flashes lights.
Everyone leaves.  Nobody says goodnight.



21 responses »

  1. I agree. It is a wonderful poem. It struck me first as bleak. But after rereading several times I can hear that it is fierce. And controlled. The sonnet form brings discipline to emotion, doesn’t it? Bleak. Fierce. Restrained. Partisan. From the sidelines, I feel like cheering.

    • You’re right, John, about the sonnet form. It’s disciplined but not a straight jacket or a sing song. I sometimes find it strangely liberating in the ways you have mentioned…well suited to our mother tongue (even for us Americans!). Maybe that’s why it still fascinates and still works, even in our time. Your choice of adjectives to describe this one pleases me very much!

  2. Fabulous poem Cynthia! You have a great ability to capture a moment; its almost as though you have taken a photo of it all!

    I can recall, having changed from being Methodist to Catholic, purely for convenience when getting married (wouldnt do that now but hey ho), and at “do’s” like this I always felt ever so uncomfortable with what I call ” all the extra stuff” that Catholics do. I don’t smoke but would probably sneak out with the smokers 😊 Im not judging anyone here for what they believe, just recalling a very strong feeling 😊

    • Hey ho! I hear you, Christine. I do recall those times when religiously “mixed marriages” were considered a problem. Those forced conversions never worked out well in my family…but hey ho, as you say. If poets couldn’t tell what they see, where would we be? Thank you for the kind words.

  3. This poem really captures the essence of the Catholic wake with its ritualistic process of saying goodbye to the dead. It is such a ceremony with the Irish as they go to the wake and then spend almost a lifetime getting ready for their on earthly finale. It almost seems that each wake attended provides helpful suggestions for one’s own funeral plans. AS the Irish say, life is always about planning for the “great trip”. Paying one’s respect at this obligatory event has so conditioned me that I feel if I don’t attend, then I’ll be struck by lightening. However, I always fled when the rosary was about to be said. This poem captured those moments, both sad and funny, that enrich our lives. Eileen

    • Even funnier than all the planning for the future corpse (“I want to be buried in my blue dress) were the ladies who went out to buy a new black outfit for the funeral while the deathly-ill person was still breathing! So, Eileen, my take on the wake is obvious, but should you be struck by lightning before I am, I would be sure to attend, my friend.

  4. A perfunctory wake. The thing about wakes is that they have little to do with the dead and all to do with the living (who are forced to confront their own mortality). Great poem.

  5. As usual a lovely poem in which you depict a scene with an artist’s eye. You say just enough to paint a poignant picture – this is true art and so well done.
    These events are, of course, for the living and yet, as you describe, often become so embroiled in ritual that the living are tempted to flee. I’m sure that part of the pathos is our tendency to personalize the event and to wonder how it will be when we are the embalmed corpse.
    Cheerio, Jane

    • Your comment reminds me of an aunt who said she wanted to be “waked” in a fancy nightgown and without her glasses. After all, she declared, who sleeps in a full suit of clothing? I asked her if she also wanted to be placed on her right side, in the casket, since she never slept on her back. She considered that for a moment before accusing me of my usual impertinence…after all, she asked, did I think I was smarter than God? Thanks for the lovely compliments, Jane

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