My mother received some bad news this morning when she learned that the sister of her closest friend had taken her own life.
The constant pain that one feels at the passing of a loved one and the fact that my Aunt passed away only four months ago has lead me to think about Irish Wakes.
Some of my American and British readers may never have experienced a traditional Irish Wake, indeed some of my Irish readers may not have either.
The Irish Wake is almost a part of our shared psyche, I myself have attended too many in my short life. They vary from joyous, almost party like, occasions for those who lived long and fruitful lives to heart breaking and soul destroying affairs for those who have left this world far too soon.
Be they sad and mournful or happy and celebratory they all share many common customs.
Coming from a rural and traditionalist part of Ireland like South Armagh means that traditional Irish Wakes are the norm rather than the exception. The only exception to this is that many families have started to go out for meals or "funeral parties" after the burial as well as having the Wake before the burial.
My own family don't believe in funeral parties and I myself have never attended one because of this.
1. What to expect at an Irish Wake
An Irish Wake is still a very individualistic affair and I can only say that my family would follow most of the traditions apart from keening.
When the person dies they are waked in their own home or the home of a close relative. The person, more often than not, will be collected from either the hospital or the funeral home. At the funeral home the priest or an elderly religious woman will say the rosary over the open coffin before the body departs for the wake house.
When the body arrives at the wake house the coffin is carried in and placed next to the window of the room in which the body will be laid. This is done to allow the spirit to leave the body and it is terribly unlucky to stand between the coffin and the window.
Only close family are in the room at this time. The priest will pray over the deceased and the rosary will be said again. The deceased will have rosary beads placed between their fingers and will be clean shaven and in their Sunday best. The window will be closed after two hours, so as to stop their spirit from trying to return to the body.
A box will be placed next to the coffin where visitors will leave Mass cards. Candles are always lit beside the coffin and holy water will be present. All the clocks in the house will be stopped as a mark of respect and all mirrors will be covered up or removed.
After the family has said their own personal prayers the wake will be opened up to everyone else. The male head of the family, usually the father, brother or son of the deceased will be at the front door to greet those who are attending the wake. The mourners then enter the room where the body is laid. This is the most solemn part of the wake.
It is customary to kneel and say prayers; most will touch the fingers of the deceased after they have said their prayers and close family will often kiss their cheek.
You are then brought into another room where tea, sandwiches etc will be offered. The length of time that is spent at a wake will depend on how close you are to the person who died; it can vary from 10 minutes to several hours.
Some people only wake the body for one night; my family have always waked the deceased for two nights. The body must never be left unattended during the entire wake and it is normally the women who spend most of their time with the body.
The first night of the wake usually lasts till about midnight and then the door is closed. The family and close friends sit up and normally have a glass of whiskey and tell stories. The family tend to get a couple of hours sleep this night.
On the second day the grave is dug, men who are friends of the family do it and a couple of bottles of whiskey are always left with the diggers. What happens when digging a grave is very similar to a stag party in one respect, what happens on tour stays on tour!
The funeral arrangements will normally be sorted out with the priest and they normally include the readings, offertory procession and prayers of the faithful. The priest, nun or local religious woman will once again say the rosary. The Rosary will always be said in Irish.
Friends and local shops will often leave hot food at the wake house as no real cooking is done during the wake. This is greatly appreciated by the family as there are only so many sandwiches one can eat.
The second night of the wake, or the wake proper, is normally the busiest night of the two nights. This is when the last sitting occurs and most of the family sit up the entire night. In all of our wakes the local men in the area also sit up and this is when the bottles of whiskey come out.
Any children who are related to the deceased are sent home or to someone else's house and this is when the drinking, stories and craic starts.
In my own aunt's wake a few months ago, my mother and aunts cousins came down and we all went into the back room with a few drinks. The girls are on the rather large side and are some of the funniest people you would ever meet. At one stage some of my female cousins had to leave the room as they were afraid they were going to wet themselves.
The laughing and joking at an Irish Wake can seem like a weird and even disrespectful act to many people. What people need to realise however is that because the family wake the deceased for two days they have the eyes cried out of their head, you need a release and it's what the deceased would want anyway.
Wakes can be a tense affair; if the deceased was separated etc it can leave for some very bad blood. At my aunts wake a few months ago nearly everyone from Dromintee attended despite the fact that she had left the area many years ago.
Her children were flabbergasted at the amount of people from the area that attended. Indeed the people that attended were in the same room for perhaps the only time in years. You would have had Republicans of all shades and colours but because of the dignity that an Irish Wake is held in to cause a row or have harsh words with someone would be a serious faux pas.
The dignity and tradition that Irish Wakes are held in make good behaviour at such sacrosanct.
A pregnant women is also not allowed to walk behind the coffin going to the church as it is very unlucky.
Many parts of the Irish Wake are a throwback to our pagan past and like most parts of the Catholic tradition in Ireland the Church has tried to include what they want and to remove what they dislike. The Church has tried numerous times (unsuccessfully) throughout history to abolish the consumption of alcohol at wakes.
The Irish Wake is actually strongest in the Northern part of the country. Many may find it unusual and not for them however for me it is an integral part of the grief process.
I hope it continues for a long time to come.