As long as there have been Irish people, there have been wakes. The wake is the period between a death and the burial, a time for not only mourning the death but celebrating life.
Traditionally, family and friends would gather at the home of the deceased over a three day period (two days of visitation and the funeral on the third day). There would be food and drink, music and storytelling, games and talk--the community coming together to reaffirm that life goes on.
There was also a wake for someone who was emigrating. Called "an American Wake", it was an evening when the departing person was treated like "the dearly departed"--there would be food, drink and mourning, just like a regular wake. Since the emigrant would probably never set foot in Ireland again he was lost to the community almost as much as if he were dying.
How did I get into this?
Back in 2001, the Gaelic League of Central Ohio decided to host a "Wake House" at the Dublin Irish Festival. Set in the 1890's as if it were the wake of the grandfather of the home, the house has displays and information available on wake traditions. I made a fabric-stuffed "corpse" (affectionately known as "Grandpa Lumpy") and the next year we added a home-made coffin. The exhibit has grown every year since. My husband, Steve, and I play the part of chief mourners and tradition-explainers. My kids used to demonstrate wake games (Yes, games and even sporting events were common at wakes!) We keep adding new information and changing the exhibits, so it's never quite the same experience twice.
And now I have Irish Wakes as a topic for storytelling performances as well as a booklet in print--"Wake Me When It's Over" (available direct from me for $6, includes shipping in the US--e-mail for details firstname.lastname@example.org)
What is an Irish Wake all about?
All cultures have ways of dealing with death. In Ireland, particularly in previous centuries, the rituals involved in
preparing and burying the body were performed at home
in a manner handed down for centuries. Perhaps nowhere
else in their culture have the Irish been quite as true to
their ancient Celtic inheritance as in their communal customs involving death.The time between the death and the burial (or later, when the body was turned over to the Church for burial)
was generally known as the "Wake"; during this time someone needed to be "awake" with the corpse at all times. Traditionally, this lasted three days--to allow the friends and relations to gather
to mend the tear in their lives caused by loss (and to make sure the deceased was really dead).
The woman of the house (or nearest female relative) would take charge after a death occurred. The dead would be washed, dressed and laid out in good clothes that may have been purchased just for this occasion years ago. Likewise, the tombstone and even the coffin might have been obtained--the original funeral pre-planning. Neighbors and children would be sent to tell the news to the community. They would also be sent
to tell any bees and cows the deceased might own--else the creatures might become upset and leave the farm. Only after
this could the "keening" and proper mourning begin.
Wakes were more of a celebration of the timeless cycle of life
and death, however, than they were an aspect of mourning.
Food, tobacco and drink were provided, of course, and music, song and storytelling were expected. "Wake games", feats of strength, wrestling and practical jokes were an important part
of a "Proper send-off". Professional mourners might be hired
or a poet commissioned to write a fitting dirge, if the family
could afford it.
Both the British Government and the Church tried to suppress many aspects of the Wake; the government for fear of rebellion being planned at such a gathering, the church attempting to stop the "unseemly" revelry. However, these efforts were largely unsuccessful.
The wake was finally toned down by modernization of the funeral laws and industry and the coming of middle class respectability. But traces still exist wherever the Irish settled, as many of the visitors to the Wake Tent have attested.
1- Upon entering the wake house, you should first go to the corpse and say a few prayers for the soul's repose. Then, greet the family. The traditional phrase is "I'm sorry for your troubles", especially to a widow.
2-There is no mourning in the house until the body has been properly prepared. We don't want the fairies or the Devil to catch the soul before the angels do!
3- Clocks should be stopped at the time of death as a sign of respect. Mirrors should be covered or turned to the wall.
4- Keening (Cáoine) is more than crying; it is praise and lament for the deceased. In the past, professional keeners and bards were hired to recite the genealogy and virtues of the dead and to lead the mourning.
5- The drinking of whiskey and poteen (moonshine) has long been a part of the mourning process. It is not moderated.
6- Likewise, pipes and tobacco were considered an essential part of the wake. Smoke supposedly "purifies" the air and relaxes the mourners.
7- Food and drink are provided as the household is capable. Neighbors contribute as needed, for a good feast is a sign of respect. Salt is also provided as a charm against evil.
8- The corpse is never to be left unattended or in the dark. That would be worst sort of disrespect. Candles usually remain lit during the entire wake.
9- "Sing a song at a Wake and shed a tear at a birth" Songs, games and stories are a part of the wake. They celebrate the life of the deceased and continuation of life among the survivors. Giving the dead "a great send-off" is a matter of pride and a sign of respect.
10- However, the Church has tried to suppress the drinking, feasting and keening at wakes for centuries. Therefore, please tone it down if a priest happens by.