Day 69 #100DaysOfOldDays
There are many customs and traditions surrounding death in Ireland. The Irish Wake is one that still exists today in some parts of Ireland. It may seem an unusual practice to some, but in our eyes it’s a very important part of the grieving process.
The wake lasts for one or two nights and is traditionally held in the home of the deceased or the home of a family member. It’s about giving your loved one a celebratory and respectful send-off. It’s not about celebrating the death, but the life that the person led.
The body is laid out in a quiet room in the house, either in a bed or a coffin. Their hands are joined and their fingers entwined with a set of Rosary beads. On a small table beside the coffin is a lit candle and a little bowl of holy water and a small branch of an evergreen tree; cypress or juniper maybe. We call them palm trees although that’s not what they are.
Without invitation, relatives, friends and neighbours call to say their goodbyes and pay their respects. They sympathise with the family and say a prayer beside the open coffin. They dip the ‘palm’ into the holy water and make a sign of the cross on the forehead of the deceased. After a few minutes, they move to a different part of the house where there’s tea and sandwiches on offer. Many visitors bring food and offers of help. Alcohol was also a big part of a wake but not so much now.
People tell stories and share their fond and sometimes funny memories of the deceased. Later in the evening a few songs, especially funeral songs would be sung. It’s a sad time yes, but hearing stories about the person you loved dearly is very comforting and the story telling and singing can be a distraction from the sadness.
The wake of an elderly person who had enjoyed a long life is often more celebratory than the wake of a young person who may have died tragically or unexpectedly—understandably so.
One or two close family members would stay up all night watching over the body—it’s never left unattended.
As well as being a comforting experience for the family, the wake can also be the initial steps in accepting the passing of a loved one.
I used to shy away from wakes because I didn’t understand the value of them. When my father passed away three years ago, it was an eye-opener. I wrote about the experience on my other blog. You can read about it here if you like.
It’s not known exactly where the tradition of a wake stems from. It possibly dates back to Ancient Jewish times when they would have left the burial chamber of the deceased unsealed for three days. During the three days family members would visit the chamber checking to see if their loved one had awakened. After three days it would be sealed and the burial would follow.
Some of the customs that go with an Irish wake still exist but many are now a thing of the past.
⚰️ Long ago people stopped their clocks around the time of death. All blinds and curtains in the house were closed. A window was left open to let the spirit free and also to keep the corpse cool. All mirrors were turned to the wall or covered up.
⚰️ Neighbour women came in to clean and prepare the corpse and dress the body in a habit. These days a corpse is dressed in their own clothes. Local men and men of the family helped to dig the grave—this often involved a bottle of good whiskey and it wasn’t for the dead man! This custom still exists in parts of Ireland.
⚰️ Professional female mourners, known as keeners, were often hired, especially when the deceased didn’t have any family or many friends. The more sudden or tragic the death the louder the keeners wailed. The chief mourner, whether it be a loved one or a hired keener, would stand at the head of the bed or coffin and be the first to cry. The others mourners followed suit.
⚰️ Another old custom was the smoking of clay pipes. The pipes and tobacco were laid around the house, some of which were brought by friends and neighbours. Every male attending the wake was expected to take a puff from the pipe. It was believed that the smoke in the house would prevent evil spirits from finding the deceased. Snuff was also laid around the house in saucers, sniffed by the women as well as the men.
⚰️ Details of the death was written on a black lined card on a piece of crepe and pinned to the front door. I still see this occasionally on shop doors when they’ve to close up business for a day or two because of a death in the family.
⚰️ It’s not that many years ago—20 maybe—that when a funeral cortege passed through our town, every shop on the street would close their doors and switch off their lights as a mark of respect. People stopped what they were doing and crossed themselves as the hearse passed by. Some people still do this.
⚰️ Mourners dressed in black, and continued to do for at least a month after the funeral. (Sometimes three months.) They wouldn’t attend any social events during these months of mourning.
Personally, I wouldn’t like to see the Irish Wake die out completely. Excuse the pun.