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All-night wakes a rarity, but remain common among Native Americans

FARGO – Add the once somewhat common all-night wake to the casualties of an age of harried lifestyles and far-flung families.

Years ago, the practice of friends and families gathering for an all-night visitation was observed in various traditions, with the boisterous “Irish wake” perhaps the most well-known.

But the observance has become rare in this area except for American Indians, where it still is commonly practiced, according to funeral directors and clergy.

A recent example was the all-night visitation for Darrell “Chip” Wadena, the former chairman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who died June 24 at a hospital in Fargo. His family and friends gathered at the Naytahwaush (Minn.) Sports Complex.

The Ojibwe believe the soul remains with the body for four days after death, during which relatives and friends keep vigil and comfort the family, said Mike Swan, a spiritual adviser on the White Earth Indian Reservation.

“In our belief, the spirit is still there until you put that body in the ground,” he said. “Someone has to be with the body.”

The vigil often begins after the person dies with the lighting of a fire, which also is maintained during a traditional wake by means of a campfire, Swan said.

Well-wishers bring tobacco offerings to give thanks and offer prayers, he said.

As with other cultures, the purpose of the wake is to comfort the family and to celebrate the life of the person who died.

The tradition of the all-night wake remains common at White Earth, Swan said, observed by those who practice traditional Ojibwe religion, Christianity, or a blend of the two.

The Rev. John Cox, the priest at St. Anne Catholic Church in Naytahwaush, where Wadena’s funeral was held, said all-night wakes are common.

Cox, a native of Lowell, Mass., served a parish in Miami before coming to White Earth almost a year ago. In Miami, all-night wakes were observed by some, especially in African-American Baptist congregations.

“Many, many peoples have had this as their custom,” he said, adding that the practice began to wane years ago. Even in his Irish-Catholic community, all-night wakes became rare.

Larry Boulger of Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo said all-night visitations still were sometimes observed when he started in the early 1970s.

“Back then, it was fairly common,” he said, adding that the practice was and remains more common among American Indians or within certain families.

“It’s kind of evolved into a shorter time span,” Boulger added. “Maybe it’s just a limitation of time. I think the pace of life has picked up. I think time has become more precious.”

Also, many families today are spread out, requiring extensive travel to return for a funeral that allows less time for a drawn-out wake, Boulger and Cox said.

Most visitations today last a couple of hours, often from 5 to 7 p.m., culminating in a prayer service on the evening before the funeral, Boulger and John Runsvold of Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home said.

Although Runsvold cannot recall directing a funeral with an all-night wake, even back in the 1970s, he said visitations years ago often were spread out over the course of a day, with people coming and going.

That could be unwieldy, so funeral homes began listing a visitation period in newspaper obituaries, and the practice quickly caught on in the 1980s, Runsvold said.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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