Manners are not rules; they are reminders that, as inhabitants of a universe that may be expanding or collapsing, there are things around us that we can control, or attempt to manage. Certainly, we cannot keep death from coming, but, I am sure, we can orchestrate all human events that follow it.
I have attended many wakes for the last few months. In one of these, as I watch the chaos and disorder around me, I decided to compose in the enforced solace of my tiny space in that room, these rules. The results of my rumination follow.
- Do not bring children to wakes or vigils. If there are no nannies or kin to take care of them, make sure your child is intelligent and charming enough to get away with some misbehavior. If your little boy keeps throwing the candies and peanuts on the floor, do not wait for the Dead to rise and smite him. It is time to take him home, with you in tow, of course. Remember that, in a wake, children should not outnumber adults, or else, they will be like pigs in a highland society that adores these ruminants. Like the important pigs, the children will dominate the place, transforming the parlor into a playground.
- Do not take home any of the delicacies or sweets served in the wake. Actually, there is a taboo for this in Philippine society, but, often, food of the highest kind is served for the Dead than for the Living. Bite your lips. Do not go into anthropological discourse about avoidance and other culturally forbidden matters. The funeral parlor is not for academic discussion. Reserve your thoughts for the next Philippine Studies conference.
- Solemnity should pervade inside the funeral parlor. That is why there is an area outside for those who are there for the whisky and the camaraderie. Once inside, you should exert effort to be somber, your fashion included. Do not wear cocktail dress to wakes, especially if you are a man. An important part of the wake is when you walk up to where the coffin is situated. This part is called “the viewing”. The reference is to the deceased and not to you. People come to wakes not to view you make an entrance or an exit. The best thing is to keep one’s head low, as if in a meditative bow. Once you reach the center of the parlor, when the flowers on the dais are overpowering, do not face the audience. The greatest thought for this moment is this: the most important person in the room lies in repose. Try to be like that person—quiet, detached.
- Black and white are still the accepted tones for mourning. Red has no place in this event unless you are a flower, in which case your place is on the wreath and not with humans.
- Gossiping is allowed during wakes. We cannot ban this national pastime. A dictator once labeled gossiping as “rumor mongering” and proceeded to ban it. He did not last. So, feel free to gossip so long as you are sensitive to the silence and sobriety of the place. Keep your voice really down. This means that your gossip mate is limited to the person beside you. Do not include the persons behind you or in front of you. The results can be fatal. As with any cultural artefacts, there is an art to gossiping. You have to consider the tools and devices around you. In wakes, the candies can support your human enterprise. Start talking as you reach for the candy. Continue talking as you slowly peel the wrapper. From afar or even to those near you, you will look like you are appraising the quality of the candy or chocolate. When you put the candy in your mouth, mention the important names in your story. As you swirl the nougat or the caramel with your tongue, deliver the punch line, the so-called coup de grace of your narrative. Then look at the people who may be looking at you at this point and then smile. Do not look at the consumer of your gossip for that will betray the meanness in your heart.
- Do not comment on the flower arrangement even if they do not conform to your aesthetics. Do not analyze how the wreaths are arranged according to the significance of the person or institution that gave the offering. You are not to pestimate the price of each wreath or bouquet and never, never try to impress the bereaved that you could get these flowers at very cheap prices in the local public market.
- Do not announce your presence. Bear in mind that in that place, we are commemorating the physical absence of a person.
- Your presence is already a consolation. The words of consolation are really unnecessary. A firm handshake, a light kiss and a lighter hug are good actions. Do not tell an anecdote about the deceased. Keep them to yourself and, when the right time comes and the right grammar and conciseness are available to you, send them to Reader’s Digest.
- It is not proper to tell ghost stories during wakes. The implications are not nice. What you are really saying is that the central figure in that room can be a ghost, as well. Again, like the anecdotes, keep your ghost stories close to your heart. When the right time comes, write a horror story.
- Do not be too sad. Never be sadder than the closest kin or the bereaved. Without laughter, keep your sense of humor during days and hours of bereavement. Think of this, Death, to wildly paraphrase Dorothy Parker, is merely Life that glows in the candlelight, or Life that has done a costume change, turning a satin into a shroud.
- Finally, think of a wake not as a party but a long prayer for us who are left to live, and to contend with the bad manners of mourners.