The Irish Wake: a peculiar waking up to the dead

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It’s an irony as astute as life itself that the greatest truth overshadowing all realms of existence is the inevitable facet of something as dormantly active as death. No matter how predictable or unpredictable the course of our lives can be, there is always this looming entity of death that beckons us every moment of our living. We know not when we might encounter death; it can befall us right in the moment even when we see no chance of its approaching us now and here. Given this uncertainty that governs the entire span of mere lives on earth, it’s easy to understand why death puts us all not just in great sorrow but in greater bafflement as well.

In any culture that we might chance upon in any part of the world, the notion of death is omnipresent. And so is the numerous rituals associated with it. And while the world expresses solidarity in deaths through marked wailings of sorrow and tears of loss, ritualistic mourning the passing away of souls is a different observance for different people all around the world.

The Irish Wake

Interestingly, just like traditional ceremonies celebrating births or really unique marriage traditions, different cultures of the globe have their own traditional means and methods of mourning. The world is witness to some really bizarre death rituals, like the Indonesian way of in fact celebrating loss or the peculiar looking Irish tradition of observing the wake. Indeed Ireland’s way of dealing with the doom of death or rather the grief arising out of it is so notable a commemoration that it has found widespread ‘popularity’ as one of the most remarkable of funeral traditions anywhere.

But inspite of the wake being a prominent marker of the Irish death diaries, the island country isn’t the only one that observes the wake. Essentially the custom in most Celtic countries in Europe, the wake however is now most identified as an Irish custom even when modern day adherence to the traditional rituals has been quite adjusted to in light of changing world views and situations. Nevertheless, the doctrine governing the observance of the Irish wake still remains rooted in the traditional and largely universal notions of death being one of the ultimate experiences of life and living.

What exactly is the Irish wake?

One of the best known funeral traditions associated with Ireland, the wake is a glorious send-off of departed loved ones in a way not quite common to universal mourning perceptions. In fact in being almost a celebration of death, the Irish wake might seem like a stark departure from the conventional glooms of death and the associated trauma of loss. But within this ‘function’ in the Irish set up, what rules the roost is in fact a remarkably healthy mechanism to cope with grief that is only natural with any death whatsoever. In their belief that the wake is a way to let the dead and the alive bond together, the Irish sure have eked our a set precinct of not letting deaths overrule the essence of life itself.

Origins

The Irish wake might be an interpretation of a similar Jewish custom that which is popular as Shemira. In a wake therefore, family members keep continuous watch over the body of the dead over three nights in the hope that there would be some signs signalling a return to life of the lifeless.

A recent tale about the Irish wake however is more often narrated, despite its somewhat ridiculous proposition. As per narratives, the tradition of the wake might be a more accurate response to a dubitable death. Lead poisoning in pewter tanks of the ancient times meant that drinkers would get poisoned upon consumption of the beer held therein. A catatonic state resembling death would what the drinkers would lapse into soon after only to recover from it within a day or so. The observance of the wake is also rooted in such belief that the deceased might wake up from such a state of death like trance and thereby dispel the gloom surrounding the loss.

Customs

The wake usually takes place at the home of the dead though sometimes the observance can also happen at the place of some close relative. A room is prepared where all the stuff of the dead person is placed near the window to facilitate the easy departure of the spirit. But the foremost practice associated with a wake is the stopping of time. All clocks in the house are stopped at the time when the death occurs. This lets the wake attendees to see the time of death as a mark of respect for the departed.

Another very essential aspect of the wake is that mirrors need to be covered or at least placed facing towards the wall. Even all curtains of the house are kept drawn. The underlying belief being that mirrors are gateways to other worlds and leaving them in full view might interfere in the soul’s passage to Heaven.

The wake ceremony

But it isn’t just the inanimate objects that are subject to restrictions and special regard, or otherwise, in a wake ceremony. Since this is an observance exclusively dedicated to the dead, it is only natural that the dead body is dressed in the best of clothes and are laid visible to visitors. A wash of the body with holy water essentially preludes the viewing rituals. As family and friends attend the wake, it is customary for them to grieve some moments while looking over the lifeless body. While that is done by reciting prayers and saying goodbye, a somewhat different state of affairs prevails in the outside confines of the primary wake room.

There are quite some interesting dictums that are related to the Irish wake. While the holy wash of the body needs to be preferably done by a woman because of the belief that women washing the dead would bring fortune, the wailing also needs to be initiated by a female. Additionally, the wails and cries need to be let out only after all the preparations have been done. It is believed that if the wailing starts beforehand, it would command the evil spirits that would take the soul away instead of it making the journey to the afterlife on its own.

The wake celebrations

The viewing ritual of the wake and the accompanying grieving is necessarily followed by some mild jovialty shared with attendees over food and drinks. In fact the food occupies a central part of any Irish wake. While the host indeed does make provision for food for everyone, it is also not uncommon for attending friends and relatives to bring some food over to the wake. Tea and sandwiches are served during the wake visitation hours followed by some whiskeys cheered during the evening time. In fact an Irish wake cake is one of the most prominent features on the food menu at such gatherings.

Even before the celebrations however the viewing ceremony would incite a similar zest for ‘food’. Or rather indulgence. Clay pipes, tobacco and snuff was kept in the room where the dead body lay and every male attendee was expected to take a puff. However the significance of this adherence was about more than luxury. The smoke of the pipes was supposed to be a means for warding away evil spirits. Viewing it as common custom of celebration however, this customary placing would indeed be as much about indulgence as it is about beliefs.

Apart from the food however, the celebrations also transcend more concretely into such fun activities as playing games and dancing. Singing also is a common occurrence, as attendees typically share anecdote or memories related to the deceased and sing and dance over meals and drinks.

The after wake rituals

As the wake would continue over a period spanning three nights from the day of death, the morning of the funeral day would be the last time together with the deceased soul. The body is placed in a coffin after which it is taken to the graveyard for burial. But even as mourner kiss the dead goodbye one last time during the funeral, there remains another Irish legend at play there. Wailing at the funeral supposedly marks the presence of the banshee, a spirit of doom and misfortune.

The evocation of the banshee however isn’t a belief exclusive to the post death rituals. A female spirit in Irish mythology, the banshee heralds the death of a family member, usually by wailing, shrieking, or keening. Needless to say, Irish deaths are affairs quite rooted in beliefs and legends, either it be in the banshee image or that of the viewing custom of the wake.

Modern day Irish wakes

irish wake quote
Source: Whisper

Till around the 1970s, the wake ceremonies were largely adhered to in Irish living. But as a ceremony that is a bit extravagant as far as the duration is concerned, Irish wakes are increasingly becoming traditional affairs of the past. Not to say that the wake ceremonies hold no relevance in the present context. In fact, as something that makes the largely terrifying thought of death and desolate encounters of it a more shared experience, the wake indeed is a funeral ceremony that seeks to grant comfort to the family of the deceased.

As close friends and relatives gather around the mourning family, the latter experiences an ease down of the grief and solace in the togetherness. It is therefore indeed commendable that people of Ireland aren’t totally doing away with the wake ceremony though rituals are somewhat tweaked upon and the whole elaborateness of the affair have been somewhat toned down.

Modern day wake ceremonies therefore have ventured out of traditional homes into more convenient spaces. Also from being a pre burial ceremony that is now held almost always after the burial is over, modern Irish wakes are generally a one day affair. Viewing also is no longer the primary agenda as much as healing and solacing. The pervading mood therefore is low key gloomy and mostly jovial, choosing mainly to dwell on the healing essence of the wake. Peculiar yet perceptive and poignant, the Irish wake continues to be a worthy funeral tradition of its own.

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