Steven Smith, a Columbus, Ohio native, and his wife Cathy Jo, are alternative Irish Americans. They travel around with Irish festivals, teaching the ways of ancient Celtic Ireland.
Cathy Jo is a storyteller and author who also goes by the name “Katie of the Fairies.” She specializes in Irish and Irish-American history, stories and songs for all ages.
But Steven’s interests are more uncommon: he is an Irish wake instructor. Steven teaches people about the Irish way of dealing with death, in particular the tradition of wakes in 19th century Ireland.
At this year’s Memorial Day weekend Chicago’s Irish Fest, Smith mesmerized the crowds in the tent as he preached over a pillow-stuffed “dead body.” The tent was arranged to be similar to a small cottage in rural Ireland.
Steven eloquently described the old Irish traditions of drinking, singing and lamenting for the dead for a period of three days.
The eccentric Irish American believes Irish wakes are “the healthiest way for the mourners to participate in the send off of the deceased.” He told IrishCentral that when his father passed away in November, “we had a hell of a party.”
“Wakes” are named after the time between the death and the burial – as somebody needed to be “awake” with the body at all times at this stage.
Irish wakes became more like parties because, as explains Steven, “it was illegal for Irishmen to be together at the one time, in case they were planning a rebellion against the British Government. The exceptions to this rule were weddings and funerals. So they really made the most of those times.”
There are many rules and tips for decorum at an Irish wake, but Steven outlines the two most important: “Never leave the body alone, and never leave the body in the dark,” he says.
“The reason is that traditionally you give the deceased three days to wake up and if he does, you want them to wake up properly,” he explains.
The Irish wake is making a comeback, according to Smith. He says that many funeral parlors contact him for advice on preparing an Irish wake. “It is a real celebration of life, and the life of the person leaving the community,” he said.