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The Traditional Irish Wake

When I walk amongst the megalithic tombs nearby where I live, I marvel at how Stone Age humans had an immediate impulse to reverently honor and bury their dead in graves that have stood for thousands of years. The Irish wake and the traditional funeral rites, whether you are Catholic, Protestant or agnostic, do much to celebrate the life of the departed as well as comforting the living left behind.

There is a story (and there is always a grain of truth in every story) that the wake is really about celebrating life in the face of a life extinguished. There are tales told of priests' disapproval over the licentious behavior of the assembled bereaved. Part of the ritual, laying the dead to rest must have been to ensure that life went on. It is said that in some districts, priests policed the wake to make sure that any procreating only happened between those maritally licensed to do so. Wakes are more sedate affairs in Ireland these days and there is speculation that the Great Famine did much to curtail more libidinous activities inspired by death.

In rural Ireland today, there are residents who are glued to the local radio station for the Death Notices. (Yes, really!) Funerals happen fast in Ireland and even if a body is being brought home from abroad, it is rare for there to be a delay above four days. If someone has died in hospital, the first part of the rites is for the undertaker to collect the deceased and bring them home. There are no funeral parlors with viewing rooms in rural Ireland; it is rare for someone not to be brought back to their home place where the family and neighbors can gather and sit up with them through the days and nights as prayers are said and the rosary recited.

When someone is first brought home, if they are Catholic, the priest arrives and the family has some private time for a short while before neighbors are admitted and the rosary is recited. The priest generally departs and then the visitors stream in, making their condolences to family members, signing the book, drinking the tea or sipping a whiskey and eating sandwiches that appear out of the kitchen as if on an assembly line. Everyone gets a chance to go in and pay their respects and farewell to the dearly departed who is generally laid out in the best bedroom.

If the person is very old, then the wake is a lively social occasion where you catch up on news and exchange fond memories. If the person is young and felled by a trying disease like cancer, then the wake can be a subdued affair where the entire community is united in the grief at the loss of someone who passed before their time. In all cases, these are community events and illustrate the social cohesion in the locality.

Then comes 'The Removal' where there is a private time for the family to say farewell and the deceased is removed to the chapel if they are Catholic or church if Protestant. The night before the funeral prayers are said, there is an opportunity to come and pay respects to the family if you have not been able to get to the house for the wake. The following day will be the funeral mass or service and the burial. In general, it is considered good form to attend the Funeral House, Removal or Funeral itself. Funeral ritual is sacrosanct and employers are generally very understanding about being absent for even extended family funerals. For small communities, it is not unusual for places of business to close during a funeral.

Funerals tend to be huge affairs with mourners being invited back to a hotel or restaurant for the funeral meal. These are social events and it's not unusual for people to joke and laugh and hug and slap backs. Life goes on. We have wept. We have prayed. We have laid our friend or loved one in the ground. Now we eat. We keep up our strength. We go on. In essence, that is the Irish wake.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Bee Smith. All rights reserved.
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