The Irish Wake Tradition – Exploring Irish Wakes
The Irish Wake (Irish: Caoineadh) is a traditional mourning custom formerly practiced in Ireland. An integral part of the grieving process for family, friends, and neighbors of the deceased, Irish wakes are occasions that mix gaiety and sadness. The custom is a celebration of the life that had passed, but the tone of the Irish wake depended largely on the circumstances of the death.AnIrish wake usually began at the time of death and lasted until the family left with the body for the funeral service. If a death occurred in the evening, then an Irish wake was not held until the following night to allow mourners to travel and prepare for the services.
Preparations for an Irish wake begin soon after death. A window may be opened so that the spirit of the deceased may leave the room. It is considered bad luck to walk or stand between the deceased and the window, as this is thought to interrupt the progress of the soul out the window. After two hours, the window is then closed to prevent the soul from returning to the body. All clocks in the house are stopped as a sign of respect, and women gather to bathe and dress the body. The deceased often is dressed in white and if male, the face is shaved before the body is dressed. The body is then laid out for viewing on a table or bed and is attended until the burial. All mirrors in the household are covered, removed, or turned around. Also all clocks are stopped at the time the deceased passed.
Immediately after they prepare the body, the women begin keening.
This vocal lamentation is a display of mourning and sounds a bit like wailing to those who are not accustomed to it. Superstition holds that keening must not begin until after the body is prepared or evil spirits will surround the Irish wake house and body.
Devout Irish Catholics integrated many religious traditions into Irish wakes. A rosary is placed in the hands of the deceased, and each mourner kneels beside the body and says a prayer. The entire rosary is said at least once during an Irish wake, commonly at midnight. The prayers are usually led by a leader in the community and the entire group of mourners supply the responses.
The Irish also celebrated the life of the deceased and shared food and drink throughout an Irish wake. Music, dancing, and physical games made the wake feel more like a party. The Catholic church has tried numerous times (unsuccessfully) throughout history to abolish the consumption of alcohol at Irish wakes. Though it is a time of sadness, the presence of friends and family makes it more bearable and there is generally great joviality as the deceased is fondly remembered; indeed, there is tradition in some parts of the country to play a game of cards and include a hand for the deceased.
Friends stay with the corpse throughout the night. A rosary is said during the day and a Mass may also be said in the house. Typically an Irish wake lasts until the next afternoon, though occasionally it may last a second night, especially circumstances caused the wake to begin late in the evening.
The afternoon after an Irish wake, the undertaker will place the corpse in a coffin or casket and take it to the funeral home. As this represents the deceased leaving home for the last time; it is often one of the saddest moments. A removal will take place when people who may not have been to the house will attend and commiserate before the casket is closed for the last time. The body rests overnight in a church before burial after a Mass the following day.
Though many of these customs have faded away in modern Ireland, some are still practiced, particularly the laying out of the body in the house before burial. This is rare, however, in the main cities and towns and a declining practice in many rural areas. Generally an Irish wake is seen as the celebratory gathering after the funeral ceremony, where people might share stories of the deceased over food and drink, but most importantly, to give the people a day to remember the person and to show their love of them. The traditional Irish wake is strongest in the northern part of Ireland.
The Irish wake, in the sense of celebrating at a death, originated with the ancient Celts. In their belief system, once someone died in this world they moved on to the afterlife, which was a better world, and thus cause for celebration.
American Irish Wakes
Similar parties were thrown in Ireland when a loved one left the country. These became known as “American wakes” or “emigrant wakes” in the mid-19th century as Irish immigration to the United States increased. Many emigrants would never see their Irish neighbors and friends again, and a send-off party was thrown it included the same mix of gaiety and sadness found in an Irish wake.
An example of an Irish wake customs can be seen in the comedy “Waking Ned”.
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