Rest in Peace!
As my sophomore year of high school began in 1960, the country was buzzing with the coming election. An Irish American was running for president! My Irish relatives rallied to the call and even my Italian family members supported the candidate.
He might be Irish but he was Catholic too! When John F. Kennedy’s campaign came to Philadelphia, my father was one of the official photographers. Proudly, I accompanied him to the events and watched as he took pictures of the man who would become the 35th President of the United States. I still have the negatives, some of my most treasured heirlooms.
For three years we followed every aspect of the Kennedy presidency. Then one bright November day in 1963, shots rang out in Dallas and our hero was assassinated. For days we were glued to the television crying and hypnotized in the outpouring of grief that gripped the nation.
A few years later, while making his own bid for the presidency, President Kennedy’s younger brother Robert was also assassinated. Again, the nation and our family mourned as one.
When a third Kennedy, the clan’s youngest child, stepped forward to make his bid for the Oval Office, we held our breath fearing for his life. But fate had other plans for Edward M. Kennedy. The opportunity to become President of the United States slipped away and he became instead The Lion of the Senate where for more than forty years he fought, and sometimes even roared, for the common good of the American people.
Ever the champion of the Constitution and the forward progress of the nation, when Barack Obama announced his intent to run for President, Senator Ted Kennedy, despite a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, threw his prodigious support into the Obama campaign.
Then, last week, the People’s Champion was gone to join his brothers in the pages of history. Certainly we cried, but more than that we celebrated the life and passion of this great man with what must have been the biggest Irish wake ever held.
For many cultures, death is a semi-taboo subject, a happenstance to be dealt with in only the most serious, somber manner. In that the ancient Celts believed that a person’s demise was the gateway to a better world, their rituals surrounding the event resonated with joy as well as sorrow. In all but the rarest cases, it was a time to share warm anecdotes and celebrate the accomplishments of the deceased, affording much needed comfort for grieving family and friends.
Originally, a wake was held in the family home, usually in the parlor, from whence comes the term ‘funeral parlor’ used to describe modern undertaking establishments. Unlike today’s society that is awash with consumerism, in past ages personal possessions and household furnishings were meager, cherished, and commonly passed down generation to generation. One item that has survived but rarely is the ‘wake table.’ Consisting of a central plank flanked by two drop-down leaves, it was used for year-round dining but when a death occurred it would have become the focal furnishing of a wake as, with its side leaves folded down, the center plank was exactly the width of a coffin, enabling respectful mourners to approach the deceased for a final farewell.
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