This article helps you know what to do should you find yourself attending an Irish wake.
By Nicole Buckler
As a foreigner, I am often miffed at Irish traditions. I speak the same first language as Irish people, I drink like they do, and even dance as badly to the same music. However when it comes to life events, the Irish do things differently. This is usually because the rituals here in Ireland are layered with traditions that go back to the Pagans and even further. The traditions are complex and steeped in meaning, and seem perfectly normal to an Irish person. But to someone from the new world, it is like walking into a Dr Seuss book and getting lost forever.
One of these life events I speak of is that of funerals. Having been in Ireland for 18 years, I have now attended four funerals, and all of these have been in the countryside. And a country funeral is a totally different ball of wax than a city funeral. It is often said that in the big smoke, a funeral just gives everyone else traffic problems. But in the country, it is a form of mass entertainment. This is definitely true if the person is old and it was simply their time. The entertainment and merriment can go on for days. In the case where a child has died, or a parent has died leaving a young family, this is not so much the case. But a country funeral where the deceased is an old person can be one hell of an excuse to try the local poitín. For days.
People often say that things are changing in the country now and funerals weren’t like they used to be. But I can say first hand they really truly are as traditional as they ever were.
Many rural folk say that the day an Irish person has died is their “third birthday.” The first birthday is obviously when they came screaming into this life. The second, when they were baptised, and the third, when they entered eternal life. So waking the dead was a good reason for a celebration. It was a fitting farewell to a loved one. Some old folk say that it was always good to go to a funeral “fully armed”, that is, a bottle of booze in every pocket!
The main part of the grieving process is called ‘the wake.’ So why is it called a ‘wake’? There are a few explanations. One circulating around the web at the moment says that a long time ago, Irish people used to drink stout from pewter mugs. The lead in the pewter would leak into the stout. This would cause a catatonic state, which looked a hell of a lot like death. This would last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Then the victim would wake up, much to the relief of their family. You can see why people of the day would sit around a body, hoping against hope that they would wake up.
There are many documented accounts during cholera epidemics, of people being genuinely being buried by mistake. Many had ‘woken up’ and scratched their way out, with bloodied hands, from their burial spots, to the horror of people witnessing the act. Others weren’t so lucky and died of suffocation, 6 feet under. And Ireland is no stranger to cholera epidemics in the past. So the fear of your loved one being buried alive can make people compelled to sit around them for days, hoping to speak with them again.
There are other traditions that seem to match up with the idea that people could ‘wake up’. There is an old Jewish custom, where the burial chamber is not sealed for three days after the body is placed inside. This is in case the person wakes up, and relatives often spent time in the burial chamber, hoping against hope that their loved one would wake up. This is remarkably like the Irish waking process.
Either way, the tradition of having a wake does ease the family of the deceased into the idea of them being gone a lot more easily. It seems to be more drawn out with several stages to deliberately get people used to the idea that the person they love is gone.
If a person had died at home, all of the clocks in the house are stopped at the time of death. This is so anyone who calls for the wake will know what time the person died, and it is also a sign of respect.
The other tradition is that all the mirrors in the house are turned around to face the wall. Down through the ages, mirrors have been seen as gateways to other worlds. It was thought that a soul projects out of the body and into mirrors. Which is why they are turned at the point of death, so that the soul can go straight into heaven.
The first thing that happens, especially if the person has died at home, is that their body is “laid out.” Usually these days this means that a funeral home will collect the body. The deceased will then be cleaned, dressed in their best clothes, and then placed in a coffin, with rosary beads around their hands, and a shroud covering the person’s lower half. The body in an open coffin is then returned to the house to be “laid out.” What this means is that the coffin is placed on a bed or table in a room for people to view. And this is when the business end of the wake begins.
A general rule is that once the body is laid out and the wake has started, the body cannot be left unattended for the entire wake. A person, generally female, sits nearby. It is normal for many people to be in the room with the body, all talking about the person, or about other things altogether. I have been to a wake with children playing around the coffin. It does remind you that life goes on, and that children only care about themselves and cake.
When you enter the house for a wake, you are expected to go to the side of the coffin, kneel down and say a few prayers. If you are not religious, then you can simply look at the departed, and spend time thinking about the time you had with them. You are not allowed to dodge viewing the body. That is what it is there for. Then of course there is the usual talk with the family, it commences with words like, “I’m sorry for your trouble.”
If you knew the deceased, but you weren’t a close relative or BFF, then you attend from about 5 pm to about 8 or 9pm. The people who come after that were in the deceased’s inner circle and they are there for the night, pretty much.
This is when the tea and sandwiches come out, and also, of course, the whiskey and poitín.
A lot of the food in the house actually appears from other women’s kitchens: the thing that knocked me out is how much food people bring over during the wake, and in the few days after. And it is a good thing too. Organising a funeral takes up so much time that many mourners can’t even think of food preparation. It was really nice for those in mourning to just to be able to heat something up and serve everyone with meals all ready to go. Now I know what to do for my next funeral: bring lasagne. And some deadly booze. The amount of booze that was brought forth during the funerals I attended was enough to power Spring Break ten times over.
People drink, and talk about the deceased and about their life, and get merry throughout the night. It is a welcome relief from all the mourning. And it eases the way of those deeply bereaved to see people and be lubricated by some very strong alcoholic beverages and be around other drunk people telling tales about the departed.
After the wake, the following morning, comes the ‘removal.’ This is when the people from the funeral home come into the house, and seal the coffin. Then they put the coffin in the hearse and drive it to the church. In small towns, the mourners walk from the house of the dead, behind the hearse, to the church. In cities it is cars all the way.
After the wake comes the God stuff: in Ireland there are usually two masses held. The first one is just after the wake. Once the coffin is in the church, a mass is said over the body. And here’s a bit I felt terrible about: the coffin is left overnight in the church, ready for the next day’s funeral mass. I hated the thought of a dead person being all alone in the draughty church overnight. I know they are dead and they don’t need extra thermals, but still, it seemed like a lonely phase of the process for the dead.
The next day’s funeral is simply another mass. When I was first in Ireland, at my first funeral, I couldn’t believe how impersonal the funeral was. I was angry in fact. My attitude was, “How can they say all this religious stuff and not say one thing about the poor old dead dude?” But over time I realised that the mass isn’t about the dead guy, it is about mass. The wake is about the dead guy. You save all your stuff about the dead guy for the wake. The mass is just mass.
After the funeral mass, the body is then put into a hearse and driven very slowly through town. In large cities, people get in the cars and follow the hearse with their lights on. If you see a funeral procession somewhere in Dublin you drive like a maniac to avoid it, because once you are stuck behind it you will be 3 hours late to your appointment. However in the country, people attending the funeral mass walk behind the hearse, in a large group, and the whole town stops. The hearse drives very slowly, so if you can’t take the heat, you are allowed to drive behind the walkers. If the group stops at any crossroads, these represent the cross of Christ, and prayers are said.
Many shopkeepers, if they aren’t attending the funeral mass, shut their shops and pull down the blinds while the funeral is passing. People on the street bless themselves as the hearse passes. If the graveyard is within walking distance, then people will follow the hearse on foot all the way to the graveyard. If it is too far to walk then people would have left their cars somewhere along the route beforehand: they then drive from there to the burial.
After the burial, these days it is usual to host a proper lunch somewhere like in the posh local golfclub, and whoever attended the funeral is invited to come along. And everyone does! And of course there is more drinking. And some more. And then some more.
This process is very different in the New World, especially in hot climates where in deep summer you don’t have the luxury of time on your side. In the New World, it is more common for someone to die not at home, but in a hospice. And then you get a call in the night to say that granny has died. So the separation from the dying process is very pronounced. The body is then taken to the funeral home, where a ceremony takes place, or perhaps to a church for those of us who aren’t Godless heathens. The process seems very clinical and detached in retrospect.
I have attended both new world and old world funerals, and I have to say that the Irish version is very, very intense. But so is death. And it is easier for the families of the deceased because of all of the drinking and talking and gathering and funeral activities. It keeps mourners busy while they work their way through the mourning process. And having the body around makes it so much easier to accept, although for me it was uncomfortable to be drinking and partying with the dead guy in the next room, or next to me, sometimes. This was simply because I wasn’t used to it. But still, at least he didn’t need anything from me except my attendance. He wasn’t going to wake up, after all, and ask for a specialty coffee and a slice of cake.
Across Ireland, waking tradition vary slightly according to the county in which they are being held. Here are some traditions that may appear at a wake in Ireland.
*Candles are often left burning beside the coffin and in the room that the deceased occupies during the wake. Traditionally, the wax was watched to see what pattern it would form as the candle burned down. Some formations were believed to foretell other deaths in the area.
*Cats are excluded from the room where the deceased is laid out. It is still believed in some parts that cats could interfere with the soul of the dead.
*After death, a window is opened to let the spirit of the deceased leave the house. After a few hours of being opened, the window must be closed once again, to prevent the spirit from returning to haunt the house. The curtains of the house would be kept closed during the wake, except for those in the room where the body was laid out.
*In recent history, ‘keening’ would have taken place. This is when the women family members would cry and wail over the deceased. This took place after the body had been laid out. ‘Keening’ would have gone on for hours and into the night. It probably had some genuine feeling to it, especially in tragic deaths, but these days keening doesn’t usually happen.
* In old-school wakes, tobacco pipes are often filled and passed around. Mourners would often be encouraged to take a pull, even if they weren’t smokers.
The thing to remember is that wakes can be different for every different family. My only advice to foreigners would be to bring food and booze and yourself. And be there to listen.