Sweet A-Wake-nings


“She was so young,” I murmured.

“I’m sorry for your loss” was the reply.

Everyone exchanged mourning niceties as I stepped back in time into a 19th century-style wake. Fortunately, it wasn’t a friend that we were mourning but the death of a long-running speakeasy.

Over the years, I had heard about the Smart Gals speakeasies in passing, but I had never been able to attend until this, the very last one. To attend, it was requested that you dress for mourning, give a small donation, and take part in the host of parlor games that ensued. As we made our way down to the basement of a church, we entered the speakeasy where there was an open-mic session in progress, makeshift paper mourning hats, and mourners dressed in their funeral best.

As is the norm for food people, we found our friends sidled up to the buffet, which included traditional mourning foods like Southern funeral cake and coffee for spiking. Things were wrapping up when one of the organizers announced that, in keeping with Victorian tradition, they had made funeral biscuits to sweeten our loss.

But, before I get giddy over grub, let me give you some context. For quite a few years in San Francisco, I was a docent at a Victorian house (long story, but it’s summed up here) during which time I studied all the customs and decorum of Victorian life. Prior to that experience, I paid little attention to Victorian culture and — beyond my love for The Age of Innocence — felt it wasn’t for me.

But then I learned of the elaborate grieving customs. I was astonished that there was such tradition surrounding how to mourn as I’ve always figured it to be a highly private endeavor. Most of all, I was intrigued by the idea of mourning or funeral biscuits — treats given out to mourners so that they may have some sweetness in their otherwise bleak state. I loved the idea, but had never followed up on the biscuits. In fact, I had all but forgot about them until they popped up at the unlikeliest of a places — a 21st century take on a wake in a church basement.

Wrapped in cheery paper and each one delicately cut out, I snatched a handful of the shortbread treats and tucked them into my purse as we left. There they stayed, a souvenir of the night, until the other day when I found myself all sorts of down in the dumps. Though there was no mourning to be had, I figured it was as good a time as any to bring some sweetness in my life. They were just the delicious, buttery silver lining that I needed to an otherwise dark cloud of a day.

Finds Travel