When I walk amongst the megaliths nearby 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 tutting over the licentious behaviour of the assembled bereaved. Yet atavisms of the ritual must have been to ensure that life went on and for that there required a certain amount of procreative activity, undoubtedly encouraged amount of alcoholic beverage. 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. 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 rights is for the undertaker to collect the deceased and bring them home. There are no funeral parlours per se in rural Ireland; it is rare for someone not to be brought back to their homeplace where the family and neighbours 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 have some private time for a short while before neighbours 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, 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, as was my neighbour Delia who was six months from her centenary, then this are lively social occasions 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 it can only be felt passed before their time.
In all cases these are community events and illustrate the social cohesion in the locality.
Then comes 'The Removal' where the is a private time for the family too 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 and 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 either the house, Removal or Funeral. 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. 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.