5 Ways Irish Wakes Inspire New Ideas About Death & Funerals

Growing up with a mostly Irish heritage, I remained quite distant from my family’s Irish ancestry. That was, until I experienced the death of a family member for the first time as an adult.

I can still remember the day my Mother got the call that my Uncle had passed. She put down the phone, then told me the news, and we both began to do something very unique. 

We both began to wail, loudly, for a long period of time. I wasn’t sure at the time what exactly I was doing or why I was doing it, but that didn’t matter because I was in the depths of grief.

I later learned that the wailing was, in a way, representative of one of the customs of a traditional Irish Wake (we’ll read about it below). This drew me to explore the traditions of an Irish Wake. Through my research, I found so many gems, that I’d like to share them with you today, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Here are 5 lessons we can learn from the traditions of an Irish Wake:

 

#1: The Irish find ways to show up for their community, even at a distance

When Betty Ryan passed away, her entire family was incredibly distraught, given the additional weight of grief from the pandemic. In most other places in the world, gathering for someone’s death came to a halt. But in Ireland, they find ways to safely show their support and “sing someone home” with the song “Oro se do bheatha bhaile” which literally translates to “A Song to Sing You Home”.

The entire community lined up, distanced 6 feet from one another, all the way from the church to the grave, for 2 kms, to pay their respects. One local says: “Even in this moment of great fear,” he said, “people have adapted one of the defining rites of their culture in a way that is safe for everyone and an acknowledgment of bereavement and loss.”

Yesterday we buried a lovely woman. Due to #Covid19 there was no wake & our community couldn’t enter the church.

But the entire parish came out & lined the 2km road to graveyard to say goodbye to Betty Ryan.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine #WestKerry pic.twitter.com/Sns99qUSad

— Seán Mac an tSíthigh (@Buailtin) March 20, 2020

 

#2: They don’t deny death; welcome it

The mainstream culture in the United States can barely whisper the word death. It’s very taboo, secretive, and even more painfully, avoided. In Irish wakes, though, death is a part of life. It is not separate from it. And their traditions, such as the tradition of the wailing women, speaks to that.

This excerpt from The Guardian, written by a woman witnessing the death of her father, explains it all:

The mná caointe – the wailing women, were calling out, keening, sharing the last moments of the life, and the death, of this man. My father. Sonny. “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.”

In the tight, enclosed space, the sound of this chorus of voices boomed off the walls, the ceiling, louder and louder, reverberating, verse after verse, on and on, cradling Sonny into death.

This death so open, so different from the denial of the Anglo-Saxon world would, too, be Sonny’s last parental lesson: How to die.

 

#3: Healing is found through the presence of death

Unlike our culture in the US, where the body is taken immediately to the funeral home, we often miss out on an important opportunity to be with death. To look it in the eyes, and really feel it. To witness the body of our loved ones without wincing away. Just being present. And finding peace in that. The tradition in an Irish Wake is that the body shall not be left alone for a significant period of time. It’s encouraged for the family to be with the body as much as possible. 

This stark contrast in the ways of the Irish inspires me personally to not fear the presence of death in my life. And I hope it inspires you, too. What if we, as a culture, begin to shift this paradigm? Imagine how much different the death industry would be!

Irish Wake

Photo credit: Irish Times

 

 

#4: Death is truly a celebration

Languaging has a very distinct and concrete way of shaping our reality. In Ireland, death is considered to be the “Third Birthday”. The first two birthdays being the actual birth, and the baptism. This languaging around death being a birthday shifts the mindset around this very powerful passage we all must take one day. A birthday sounds like a celebration, and that is often how the life of the dead is handled by the community: it’s celebrated. We’re just beginning to catch on to this in the USA, but for now we can still learn a lot from the Irish.

 

#5: Death isn’t the end of life, it’s a process

Death is often seen as a sad, fatal end to a life we try so hard to hold onto. But the Irish see death as “not the end of life; it is purely a fundamental process that starts at the very beginning of life – when we are conceived” according to one source. They see death as an endless process; that we’re always shedding and dying and changing, only to be born again. This outlook, synonymous with many newly popularized eastern beliefs, offers some solace to the idea of death. 

I hope these lessons inspired you about death in some way, no matter if you’ve been working in the profession for 30 years or just lost a loved one. I’ll leave you with this beautiful music piece created for Irish Wakes. Enjoy it, and let me know what inspires you about this post in the comments below. 

 

What ways does the Irish Wake inspire you this St. Patrick’s Day? Tell us in the comments below!

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  1. Connie

    I’m not Irish, but these five lessons on death sure made me not to afraid of death. I am a Christian, but I don’t want to be stuffed in a casket, and buried underneath the earth. I think it is morbid. I have decided to be cremated, and would like my ashes spread at a place that is close to my heart. I’m thankful for the life God has given me.

  2. Krystal Penrose

    Thanks for your beautiful comment Connie.