On a Friday afternoon Brock University student Leena Ali found herself walking into the wake of a deceased person she had never met.
How did she end up there?
It all started when Ali received an accidental text from Dawn Burke, a Niagara Falls resident who thought she was texting her nephew Quentin, inviting him to a “celebration” for her dead aunt’s life.
Burke initially had no idea that she’d got the wrong number. But you can’t blame her; when she asked “Hey … is this Quentin?” in her text on Sept. 17, Ali replied “Yea, who’s this?”
Ali kept up the act until Burke dropped the address for the wake.
Then she confessed, letting Burke know that she wasn’t her nephew.
Ali made a request, even though the celebration was not for a family member of hers, she wanted to attend the wake for the late Debbie Celar.
She promised to bring something.
“Culturally, that’s what we do,” said Ali, who is of Sudanese descent. “If someone invites you somewhere or brings you somewhere, you should bring something.”
So, on Sept. 21, after attending her “communication in popular culture and film” class, Ali grabbed her childhood friend Yasmin and they drove 30 minutes to Celar’s wake in Niagara.
When Ali walked in, she was greeted by a sea of confused faces; she had never met Celar or any of her family.
Dawn herself was confused when Ali finally approached her.
“Then I showed her the fruit bowl,” said Ali. “And she freaked out and got all excited.”
Ali said she had walked into what seemed like a hall, with roughly 400 people celebrating Celar’s life.
Dawn’s nephew Quentin, who she orignially thought she was texting when she ended up sending it to Ali by mistake, was also there.
Celar was part of a big family; she left behind 13 grandchildren and 50 immediate family member. She was well-known in her neighbourhood and around Niagara Falls, said Burke, who added that her aunt would have invited anybody into her home.
“When I found out that it wasn’t Quentin (I texted), I just thought ‘I’ve gotta go with this, because my aunt Debbie would.’ Aunt Deb would invite these people, whoever they are, into her home. That’s just who she was,” said Burke.
The celebration included food and a slide show featuring pictures of Aunt Debbie with family and friends.
Ali said she was moved to go partly because she had never heard of people celebrating a life after death.
“I never knew this was a thing,” she said.
“I thought it was just funerals.”
She spent the afternoon learning about Debbie, talking to family members and even to Celar’s husband. They all told Ali how much she reminded them of their aunt; some even cried tears of happiness, she said.
Ali tweeted the text-message exchange between her and Burke and it has since gone viral, garnering more than 5,000 likes and more than 1,000 retweets. Ali hesitated to tweet about the event in the first place because she didn’t think anything of it.
“This is something I would have done any day of any week,” she said. “Even my friends know I’m just a person who does this, they were shocked that it got so much attention because they are so used to it.”
While she got some reactions calling her crazy for attending a stranger’s wake, Ali said she found some of reactions hilarious.
“Some people were talking about how their friends won’t even come to their own birthday parties.”
For Burke, Ali’s appearance at the event was an entirely positive thing: “My family hasn’t stopped talking about it,” said Burke. “Things happen for a reason and at such a sad time in our life (Ali’s visit) made it the brightest.”
With files from Marjan Asadullah, Emerald Bensadoun and Bianca Bharti