Soon we’ll have to wake the wake and say goodbye to old traditions

Unfortunately, it looks as if the tradition of the wake is going the way of many more, says Trevor Laffan
Soon we’ll have to wake the wake and say goodbye to old traditions

TRADITIONS OF OLD: Clocks were stopped at the time of death, as part of the old tradition, mirrors were also covered over and all window curtains were closed except for the one closest to the body, to allow the spirit to leave the house. Picture: Stock

WE have a great reputation in Ireland for looking after our dead. We may not be so good at looking after the living and we pile the sick onto trolleys and leave them in hospital corridors but they shouldn’t complain. Because when they die they will be well catered for.

Irish wakes are anything but sad affairs. Like most of our activities, we apply the same principal to dealing with the dead that we apply to births, engagements, weddings, birthdays and other events worthy of recognition. We saturate ourselves in alcohol, tell some stories and sing songs.

Merrymaking is a common part of the traditional Irish wake and a major part of the grieving process.

It’s what we do.

There is a yarn told about the origin of the wake. Apparently, there was a time when it was common for drinkers to suffer from the effects of lead poisoning because they drank from pewter tankards.

Add to that the fact that they often drank poteen from these things and it’s easy to see how it could result in guys being in a catatonic state after a session. They were being slowly poisoned and could appear, for all the world, to be dead.

Other guys would then be nominated to take turns watching over them until they either came back to life or were in fact declared to be ready for the embalming stage. Whatever about the truth of that story, the wake gives family and friends one last opportunity to pay their respects to the person they’ve lost. It gives them a chance to share their grief with the family of the deceased before the burial. An attempt, I suppose, to offer some comfort to the mourners in the face of their loss. It works for some and I can testify to this from personal experience.

When my father died, we brought him to the church in the traditional removal scenario. While we were in the church, some of the grandchildren didn’t like the fact that he had to stay on his own in the church for the night. They wanted to stay with him. So, with that in mind, I arranged for my father to be brought back to my place and we put the coffin in the back room. All the grandkids gathered up some sleeping bags and duvets and set up camp around him for the night. They spent their time telling him jokes.

Now, maybe there will be some who will find that offensive or they might say that it was against the rules or whatever, but I don’t care. These kids got great comfort from what they did and to me, that’s what’s important. I’m certain too that if my father could have seen it for himself, he would have got a kick out of it. And maybe he did, who knows?

My grandmother was the district nurse back in the day and she was called upon regularly when people died in the locality and she would help to prepare the dead. There was a procedure to be followed and it was important that things were done properly.

The women came to the house and washed the body of the deceased. The body was shaved, dressed and placed in the coffin which was normally put in the sitting room. Usually a set of rosary beads would be wrapped around the hands and a cross placed around the neck depending on the religion of the deceased.

Candles would be placed at the head and foot of the coffin and they would stay lighting until the deceased left the house. Family members or close friends would stay with the deceased, taking it in turns to watch over him or her.

Clocks were stopped at the time of death too and the mirrors in the house were turned around or covered. I can remember as a youngster being told that when my grandfather died, the clock in the kitchen stopped. It was a smaller version of the old grandfather clock with the pendulum underneath the clock face. I was told that the clock stopped the moment he died and for years I believed that.

Then, I figured that it was more likely that someone had deliberately stopped it at that time because that was part of the process.

But recently, while talking to my mother, she told me that the clock stopped by itself. She said that nobody touched it but my grandfather and if anyone went near it there would be holy war. There were only three of them in the house that night and none of them touched it. She also told me that his watch stopped as well so the mystery deepened.

Another of the customs that had to be observed during the wake was that all the windows and curtains in the house had to be closed except for the one window closest to the body. This would have to be left open to allow the spirit of the deceased to leave the house. Nobody was supposed to stand at that window or block the path to it because that might prevent the spirit from leaving and it would bring misfortune to the person who blocked the route. After two hours, the window would be closed to prevent the spirit from re-entering.

Wakes are still held in the more rural parts of Ireland, the tradition is disappearing in the larger towns and cities. That’s a pity. A wake is a support structure that brings family, friends and neighbours together to pay their respects and to comfort the bereaved. Unfortunately, it looks as if this tradition is going the way of many more and very soon we may have to have a wake for the wake.


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