All cultures have ways of dealing with death. In Ireland, particularly in previous centuries, the rituals involved in preparing and burying the body were performed at home in a manner handed down for centuries.
Perhaps nowhere else in their culture have the Irish been quite as true to their ancient Celtic inheritance as in their communal customs involving death.
The time between the death and the burial (or later, when the body was turned over to the Church for burial) was generally known as the “Wake.” During this time someone needed to be “awake” with the corpse at all times. Traditionally, this lasted three days – to allow the friends and relations to gather to mend the tear in their lives caused by loss (and to make sure the Deceased was really dead).
The woman of the house (or nearest family relative) would take charge after a death occurred. The dead would be washed, dressed and laid out in good clothes that may have been purchased just for this occasion years ago.
Likewise, the tombstone and even the coffin might have been obtained – the original funeral pre-planning.
Neighbors and children would be sent to tell the news to the community. They would also be sent to tell any bees and cows the deceased might own – else the creatures might become upset and leave the farm.
Only after this could the “keening” (lamenting the dead through crying, rocking, clapping, etc.) and proper mourning begin.
Wakes were more of a celebration of the timeless cycle of life and death, however, than they were an aspect of mourning. Food, tobacco and drink were provided, of course, and music, song and storytelling were expected.
“Wake games,” feats of strength, wrestling and practical jokes were an important part of a “proper send-off.” Professional mourners might be hired or a poet commissioned to write a fitting dirge, if the family could afford it.
Both the British Government and the Church tried to suppress many aspects of the wake; the government for fear of rebellion being planned at such a gathering, the church attempting to stop the “unseemly” revelry. However, these efforts were largely unsuccessful.
The wake was finally toned down by modernization of the funeral laws and industry and the coming of middle class respectability. But traces still exist wherever the Irish settled, as many of the visitors to my Wake Tents have attested.
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