The traditional ‘Irish Wake’ was commonplace around Ireland up until about the 1970’s. The body of the departed was laid in the house where they lived.
It was a meitheal in the true sense, a concerted effort by family, relatives and neighbours to provide the means of creating a ‘good send off’. Chairs, linen, delph were borrowed, bread was baked, food was prepared and the essentials of the wake and funeral were organised.
All of the family, cousins, in-laws and neighbours gathered here to pay their respects. The body was usually ‘laid out’ in the parlour of the house or the kitchen if there was no parlour. There was lots of food and plenty of drink to be consumed. People came and socialise and remembered the departed person’s life. It was the traditional Irish way of celebrating one’s life and ensuring that they had a ‘good send off’.
The Wake was the period of time from death until the body is conveyed to the care of the church which was generally the evening before the day of burial. Poverty was always a factor for Irish catholics but somehow they found or were given the means to ‘have a good Wake’
Laying out the Corpse
After a death, neighbouring women experienced in ‘laying out’ the body gather at the house of the diseased. Coins were placed on the eyes soon after death to ensure they remained closed. The body was washed, dressed in a habit and a bed was prepared with the best starched, white linen (usually set aside solely for wakes). It may belong in the family home or borrowed from a relative or neighbour. Men were shaved. A rosary beads was strung through entwined hands, it’s large crucifix was placed on the chest. A table was placed beside the remains, draped in white on which candles were lit in candlesticks each side of a crucifix. Chairs were arranged alongside the bed for mourners, closest relatives nearest the head.
Keening & Crying
Keening is a traditional form of vocal lament for the dead – keening was very common in the 1800’s & early 1900’s and a very important part of the Waking ritual. The women who prepared the body would join the mourning family who produced either muffled sobs or loud wailing in keeping with the depth of their sorrow. After an appropriate period, keening mourners were led away from the corpse by relatives or neighbours and consoled. Word was sent out to distant relatives and news of the death was spread by neighbours.
Respect & Esteem
It was considered a mark of respect to ‘not rush’ the wake. if the person died after midnight the wake would continue until the removal of the corpse on the evening of the next day. A body was seldom removed from home on the same calander day as the person died.
Preparations for the Wake
Men, usually relatives took charge of ordering the coffin, women generally took care of supplies of food and snuff while the men sourced alcohol (usually poteen). A plate of snuff was passed to all for a pinch, clay pipes where filled with tobacco and every person who attended the wake would partake of food, tea, alcohol, snuff and tobacco. and talk about general affairs.
Clocks were stopped at the time of death and mirrors were turned towards the wall or covered. A corpse was never left unattended for the entire wake. Mourners were welcomed by relatives, they expressed their sympathy “I’m sorry for your trouble” and spoke kindly of the deceased, they approached the side of the corpse, kneeled and silently prayed for the departed soul. They were offered food and drink and remained for a few hours exchanging stories of the deceased and local news Anecdotes were told with quiet laughter but within a solemn and decorous mood.
It was a mark of honouring the deceased to attend the wake and the main opportunity for relatives & neighbours to gather.
By late evening the rosary was recited around the corpse, the first decade was often lead by an important local figure, relatives would then take other decades, it was interspersed with the ‘Sorrowful Mysteries’. Visitors took the ending of the rosary as their que to leave.
Watching the Corpse
Only those designated to remain with the corpse overnight remained after midnight, this was usually a relative and a close neighbour.