What Irish Funerals Can Teach Us About Celebrating LifeMarch 17th, 2014
The Irish are well-known for their joy, belief in good luck, and uplifting spirits, especially when it comes to enjoying a party. With the excitement surrounding St. Patrick’s Day, we decided to share traditional Irish rites surrounding death and funerals.
The most well-known is the Irish Wake. It used to be the custom in Celtic countries for mourners to keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried — this was called a “wake”. Often the Irish Wake is a party, a true celebration of the life of a person, as friends and relatives gather about to eat, drink and share memories.
There are elements from the traditional Irish wake that we can learn from because they function as a way to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one. Let’s dive in…
Tears vs. Laughter
Until modern times, Irish wake customs ran the gamut from profound grieving to what appeared to be rollicking good fun. There would be lots of food and plenty of drinks. People would come and socialize and remember the departed person’s life.
This wasn’t a time for tears to say the least; it was more of a party than a funeral. It was the traditional Irish way of celebrating one’s life and ensuring that they had a good send off.
Traditional Irish Customs
In parts of Ireland it is still common to display the body of the loved one in the family home. Wakes of the past started with neighbor women washing the body of the deceased and preparing it to be laid out on a bed or a table, often in the largest room of the house.
- · The body was covered in white linen adorned with black or white ribbons, or flowers for the body of a child.
- · Candles were placed around the body.
- · Clay pipes, tobacco and snuff were also placed in the room. Every male caller was expected to take at least a puff. The smoke kept evil spirits from finding the deceased. Usually, a pipe and tobacco were placed on a table next to the body. Occasionally, a pipe was laid on their chest.
- · Clocks were stopped at the time of death.
- · Mirrors were turned around or covered.
Old Fashioned Irish Rituals
- · The body must not be left unattended for the entire Wake.
- · A person, generally one woman or more sits nearby.
- · On entrance, the mourner makes their way to the side of the body, kneels down and silently recites a few prayers for the departed soul.
- · Mourners are then welcomed by the relatives and express their sympathy. “I’m sorry for your trouble”…then the mourner speaks kindly of the deceased and walks away.
- · The mourner is offered food and drink for the hours spent at the Wake.
- · If the weather is good the men congregate outside – if not, they go to the kitchen (this is very important and traditional).
- · The body is often in the parlor and there is a division between the room of the body and the celebration.
- · The mourner stays for a few hours. The old men and women come in the morning and with the end of the working day others in the community stop in.
- · The Rosary is recited once or twice – at midnight and then towards morning, along with traditional prayers.
- · Most visitors leave at midnight, but close neighbors remain until the morning.
- · They drink tea, whisky or beer and share anecdotes with quiet laughter but within a solemn mood.
- · There are two funerals, one in the evening and the second is when the body is taken to the graveyard on the next day.
Blending Irish Funeral Traditions with Modern Life
As funeral service providers, it’s important to find ways to blend traditions with today’s families’ needs in order to create meaningful services that resonate with all family members. Like the Irish wake, we can join together to eat, drink and share memories.