Along with birth, death is one of two completely democratic facts of human existence. The way an individual culture treats death speaks volumes about the things and ideas that it values during life. One should not be frightened about the foreignness of a culture's ceremonies because when it comes to honoring and saying goodbye to deceased members, each society is unique in its treatment of the life that has ended, and the lives that will continue afterwards. One such truly unique and interesting death ceremony is the Irish wake. Whether attending a wake for the first time, or preparing for your tenth wake, it is a good idea to become accustomed and refresh yourself about the uniqueness of the experience.
The image most commonly associated with the wake is that of a deceased person lying in an open casket, surrounded by their family members in the hopes that they will “wake up. " Somewhat apocryphal, though not entirely false, the received belief is that the wake was intended to provide vigil over the deceased person until the moments leading up to their burial. In this way, it was thought that the family and friends of the deceased person could rest easier knowing that they had done all they could to respectfully preserve this person's life, and only at the last moments would they relinquish the hope of this individual returning, of “waking up". On the completion of the hours of open observance of the deceased body, the guests would pay their final respects and exit the house, knowing that they would never see this individual again.
Though this idea of a deceased family member regaining consciousness in their last hours may have eventually become part of the folklore of the Irish wake, it is doubtful that this was ever the actual basis for gathering around the deceased person. Historians believe that the observance of the body and the preservation of memory are much more telling phenomenon seen through their pure social effects. The root of the word “wake" means to watch over, a definition that could easily lend itself to the idea that the guests were indeed trying to guard the deceased member's spirit, or the absence of their spirit, to ensure that they were not burying the individual too hastily. In this view, another essential part of any wake is the telling of stories about an individual, and a celebration of the individual's life, which is seen as either “passing-time" or perhaps simple pleasantry until the observance has been finished. This would be far too mechanical an operation for any self-respecting guest at an Irish wake! Perhaps an explanation more true to the spirit of an Irish social gathering is one that places emphasis on the act of story telling itself. With a rich literary tradition, Irish culture repeats and celebrates itself through its deceased members, when, in front of all their friends and family they are given the ultimate Irish signs of watchful, respectful guardianship: hilarious anecdotes, bawdy jokes, and fond farewells.
If you are preparing to attend an Irish wake, watch the temper and climate of the group you are with. Watch how they respond to the sight of the deceased they may not treat the presence of a dead, dear old friend as something to be frightful of. For wake gatherers, it is not taboo; it may even become part of a joke. Don't be surprised if tears and laughs come in equal measure, and feel free to join in when respect for a deceased friend turns into an occasion to recall his most uproarious experiences. It is in this way that the person may be remembered with a smile, and their life retold for generations to come, a uniquely Irish way of passing into the afterlife.
Mr. Oliver is a marketing agent of Morrissett Funeral Home. The funeral home provides funeral services and arrangements throughout the Richmond Virginia area. For more information on their Funeral Services please visit their website.