The term “wake” is interesting. Usually, when we “wake,” it’s morning, and we’re ready to start the day, but used in this context, it means to keep a vigil over the dead the night before the burial. It’s synonymous with the term “viewing” used in the modern funeral parlor industry. The wake is that period of time from death until the body is transported to the church for the funeral rites.
In the not-too-distant past, (and even today among some true diehards, no pun intended) the Irish wake was generally held in the family home. The elder women of the neighborhood would arrive to wash, dress, and lay out the body. The body would be washed and dressed in a shroud or the best outfit. The deceased’s rosary was placed in the hands and a crucifix was placed at the head or on the breast. The body was laid on the bed, board, or table and a candle was lit.
People would come from near and far, and even though there were few telephones (Imagine that, if you can!) the “Irish telegraph,” was extremely efficient, and the news traveled very fast over long distances. This, of course, was in a time before television kept people at home. Before the TV took over, the Irish were extremely social, and visited each other often, just a short visit with not even a cup of tea taken, but with all the necessary news spread.
When the people come into the house they kneel by the body and say a prayer. Close relatives kiss the cheek of the deceased. Then the visitors greet the family and offer some comforting words. This part of the wake is very solemn and respectful.
The women, and sometimes some of the men, keen at the wake. Keening is a form of wailing that is interspersed with endearments, usually in Gaelic, addressed to the deceased. Keening is most intense if the wake is for a child. Keening is not like any other kind of crying. It is very difficult for me to describe. It’s loud and goes on for a long time. When one keener loses volume, another takes up the cant.
In the past, there was always snuff and tobacco, tea, food, and spirits (of the drinking kind), offered to all who attended the wake. Few people “take snuff” anymore, and tobacco, even the fragrant kind used in pipes, is falling out of favor, but they were definitely an important feature at wakes, as important as the tea, food, and spirits. The eldest boy in the house or the son of a close neighbor was given the honor of cutting the tobacco and filling the pipes.
The mourners move on to another part of the house to congregate, eat, drink, and talk. Even the most sorrowful mourner is inspired to raise a glass and remember the happiest of times in the life of the person who has passed. The company stays until late in the night with the recitation of the Rosary as the signal that the evening is over.
After the funeral, all the friends and relations drop by the house and partake of the vast quantities of food and drink that have appeared, as if by magic, into the house. Often, the family will arrive home and find that the house has been cleaned from top to bottom and every surface of the kitchen and beyond is weighed down with the best of food and drink. This is where the “Irish wake” stereotype comes from. The people gathered remember the life of the deceased, and the taller the story the better. A stranger would think there was a real hoolie going on, and in a sense there is: it’s a way to celebrate the life departed. There may be tears, but there’s plenty of laughter as well, as all the funny stories, happy times, and triumphs of the dead are shared and recorded in the memories of the living.
The tradition of the Irish wake is changing. Most people aren’t waked from home. A funeral parlor takes care of the arrangements. But still, the formula remains. People come from near and far to share the sorrow of those who are left behind, to celebrate the life of the departed, and faith in the life ahead.