What Irish Funerals Can Teach Us About Celebrating Life

Aran Islands Cemetery by Mark E Tisdale.

Irish Aran Islands Cemetery by Mark E Tisdale.

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 old-fashioned Irish wake was born of a cultural blend of paganism and Christianity and is still practiced today, but in a very toned down way. Certain rituals were followed in an Irish wake:

  •     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.


Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments.

  1. Kate Hamilton

    Thank you very much for sharing Kim, it’s amazing that so we still practice so many of the rituals at a time when so much is changing… Kim, in our community we open a window to allow the soul of the person to return home. We place a black crepe on the front door of the house the wake is taking place. It is the men that keep vigil over the corpse during the night. A drop of whiskey lubricates the tongue and wonderful stories of the deceased are shared until morning. I remember the laughter coming from many a wake. I feel lucky that we still observe most of the traditions in the area I come from…

  2. Funeral Blog. The official blog for the funeral & cemetery professions. » Blog Archive 5 Amazing Funeral Personalization Ideas From Around The World

    […] Irish traditionally celebrate their deceased loved ones – with lots of drinking, of course. The typical Irish wake usually involves less tears than we’re used to, and a lot more alcohol and celebrating. The Irish […]

  3. Rick Fondren

    Being a Christian and follower of Christ, I am looking forward to my death. I want a party with music, food, and celebrating.

    I know I’m going to heaven. A city with streets of purest gold. To see all my love ones. To meet people I’ve only heard and read about. Like Abraham, King David , Issac, and Jacob. But most of all I get to meet and spend eternity with my savior Jesus and my God. I get to live forever without any pain, heartache, or tears.

    And I promise you I’m going to be have more fun than anybody at my wake. So don’t cry for me. Celebrate that I’m finally home. I get choked up just think about it.

  4. Leo

    Very useful comments Rochelle although I am of Irish father (and spanish mother) I am attending my first funeral and want to make sure I respect the passing in every way. Thanks

  5. Ron

    Re Irish Wake: Very good descriptions. I am going to one and wanted to make sure I understood what might be expected. Thank you.

  6. Robin

    We held a ‘Celebration of Life’ for my mom when she passed instead of a traditional viewing/funeral. I wanted something very personal to our mom & family which couldn’t be done at a funeral home due to state laws, etc. We had food, family & friends for an evening that didn’t include mom’s body, but the intent was to be more social & upliting, & less somber. Family treasures & generation photos, mom’s handwork items -quilts, crocheting, etc. & stories…made our evening about mom & her important treasure, her family legacy….

  7. Rilee Chastain

    Hi Robin! Thanks for sharing…That sounds like an amazing send off for your mom 🙂

  8. John Beams

    Just lost a deer friend..hositality business in Louisville.Ky..the best guy…Daniel Patrick Kennedy..your Irish Wake info inspiring..how do I tell the World how special this man wax..friend.. co-worker..father..husband…Betty..wife..and family.thank you for sharing Daniel Patrick with so many people..he will be missed and never forgotten.
    We loved him..Irish delight ..johnbeams

  9. Rilee Chastain

    John, thanks for the beautiful comment. We’re truly to sorry to hear about the passing of your friend. Wishing you all the best.

  10. Jim

    This is very helpful. I am currently going through training to be a death doula.I hope to be able to help people have knowledge of ancient funeral practices. Also as I think what I want for my funeral I really want it to be from my Irish heritage. This is a great start in researching the Irish wake.

  11. Funeral Insurance

    This is very useful. Thanks for sharing the information!

  12. Philip Dunphy

    We recently fulfilled the last wishes of our father who was from Ireland. He obviously attended many funerals as a kid and left us instructions as how it was to be. He was set up for three nights in his house where many people came to pay respects. At the graveyard, he requested that we three sons backfill his grave by shovel. Needless to say this took a special request to the groundskeeper, but we were successful.
    The funeral home had not done an Irish wake in decades, but they did it!
    Thank you for writing this, it is a good tradition and I recommend keeping it alive.
    Thanks Rochelle

  13. Megan Zierden

    i read your information on an Irish funeral and was wondering if it was possible for an American to do that if they are part Irish?

  14. Krystal Penrose

    Hi Megan, yes, anything is possible! Just be sure to ask your funeral director to help you make this happen 🙂

  15. DON

    i wish in the united states it was allowed a lot of celtic history is good for all

  16. Pagan Funerals: Burials, Customs, and Pagan Funeral Songs

    […] hold an Irish wake: click here to learn more […]

  17. Maureen Blair

    When I was very young my grandparents lived on the 2nd floor of a two family house in the Bronx, New York. The Murphy family lived downstairs. One day there were several people in and out of the Murphy’s
    apartment. I wandered in and Mr Murphy was “sleeping” on the dining room table. Music was playing, it was like a party. I was only 3 at the time. Several years later I learned it was Mr. Murphy’s wake.

  18. Krystal Penrose

    Wow that’s an amazing story Maureen! What a beautiful first experience of an Irish wake. The Irish do it best I must say!

  19. Funeral Songs From Around The World – Heavenly Doves

    […] The wake would become a mix of sombre & celebratory gathering of the community where family and friends would eat, drink, and share stories until late in the night. The rosary and prayers would be recited throughout the night. Often the body of the deceased would be laid out on a bed, wrapped in white cloth and mourners could say their last words or prayers to their loved one. Lit candles were placed around the body and often tobacco was smoked to keep the evil spirits away. Clocks were stopped at the time of death and mirrors were all covered or turned around. A funeral service with a priest would occur in the evening and then the next day at the grave site. Source: FuneralOne […]