The Irish Wake
Customs and traditions
Certain customs and traditions surround death in Ireland. Here you can read about Irish Wakes.
The Irish Wake is perhaps one of the best known funeral traditions associated with Ireland. The Wake, the glorious send-off of departed loved ones, is a prominent feature of Irish funeral traditions, but is seen less and less often in modern Ireland and is now almost unknown in the cities. But in many country areas the practice of watching over the recently deceased from the time of death to burial is still followed and is an important part of the grieving process, which is why many Irish funerals, outside of the cities, are still preceded by a wake.
The origin of the wake probably dates back to the ancient Jewish custom of leaving the sepulchre, or burial chamber, of a recently departed relative unsealed for three days before finally closing it up, during which time family members would visit frequently in the hope of seeing signs of a return to life.
A more recent story, which is almost certainly a myth, is that the tradition of the wake in Ireland came about as a result of the frequent lead poisoning suffered by drinkers of stout from pewter tankards. A symptom of this malaise is a catatonic state resembling death, from which the sufferer may recover after a period of a few hours to a day or so, to the relief of those watching for signs of such an awakening.
Whatever the origins, there is no doubt that the ceremony of the wake has provided comfort to those who have nursed a loved one through a terminal illness or have had them snatched away by disaster without the chance to say goodbye. It is an opportunity to celebrate the departed person’s life in the company of his or her family and friends and to mark their departure from their home for the last time. A wake is a scene of both sadness and joy as the end of that life is marked but the life itself is remembered and treasured.
Where is a wake held?
- A wake is usually held in the deceased’s home, or the home of a close relative. It is becoming more common, especially in cities, for the traditional wake to be replaced by a ‘viewing’ at a funeral home. The immediate family of the deceased will be at the funeral parlour and the protocols are similar to those followed at a wake held in the home.
- If a wake or a viewing is taking place, the death notice will normally say ‘reposing at..’ and then give the address. During a wake, the location is usually evident as there will be lots of cars outside and quite often people gathered chatting in front of the house.
- Typically, the body is waked for at least one night, during which time family, neighbours, friends, work colleagues and acquaintances visit the house to pay their respects.
Who attends a wake?
- If you knew the deceased, or know any member of the deceased’s family, then you could attend the wake. You do not have to wait to be invited. Typically, a wake is attended by family, relatives, neighbours, friends, work colleagues, school and college friends, and acquaintances. However, if the death notice states ‘house private’, then the wake is restricted to the immediate family and invited guests.
- It is not usual for children to attend a wake, unless they are close relatives of the deceased.
- Men often visit the wake house late at night and sit with the body during the night. Close male neighbours and friends often volunteer to do this so that the family can get some rest.
What is the atmosphere like and how should I dress?
- The atmosphere is respectful and you may hear both laughing and crying as people recall stories about the deceased.
- Dress respectfully and avoid flamboyant colours.
What to do when you enter the “wake house”
- Typically, when you enter the wake house you will be greeted by a member of the deceased’s family, who will guide you to where the body is laid out. If not, someone close to the family will show you the way. Shake the hand of the person who meets you and offer your condolences.
- Expect to see lots of people sitting around drinking tea, eating sandwiches, biscuits and cakes and chatting – even in the room where the body is laid out.
- The closest family members will usually be beside the body, which is typically laid out in a coffin. You should make your way to them, shake hands and offer your condolences. It’s sometimes hard to know what to say, and people will understand this as it is an awkward situation.
- Take a moment to stand and look at the body, during which time you may say a prayer. Some people touch the hands or head of the corpse for a few seconds or sprinkle some holy water (which is often on a nearby table), on the body. The best advice is to watch what others are doing and follow suit.
- Once you have met the family, shaken hands and viewed the body, it is customary to take a seat and chat for a while with those who are present. Expect to be offered a cup of tea. It is less common nowadays to be offered alcohol.
- An acceptable time to remain at the wake is anything from 10 minutes to several hours, depending on how well you know the family.
- Close neighbours and friends often volunteer to help in the kitchen (making and serving tea and sandwiches) or undertake other chores such as minding children, running errands etc.
What to take with you to a wake
- Nothing is required, but many people take along a condolence card and place it on the table beside the coffin or on the coffin.
- Only if you know the family very well do you take something to a wake, although if you do, it is always appreciated by the family, as it is such a tiring and stressful time. Typical things close relatives, neighbours and friends might take along include sandwiches, cakes and biscuits.
- Close neighbours may offer chairs, crockery and tea pots, for the duration of the wake.
When to attend a wake
- If you are not a close relative or friend of the deceased or the family the most usual time to attend is between 5pm and 8pm.
- The latest time to attend varies from county to county, but often a wake continues throughout the night and it is customary for close neighbours, relatives and friends to “sit with the body” during the night, so that the family can get some rest. If you are at the house near the time the body is due to be removed, you should leave early enough to give the immediate family time to pay their last respects to the deceased.
- Often you will see a Guest Book in the hallway of the wake house. You should sign this so that the family knows who has visited and can thank everybody.
What will I see at a wake or a viewing?
- You can expect the body of the deceased to be visible in an open coffin in the house or the funeral home.
- Usually, the body is dressed in their best clothes, but covered with a shroud from the chest down. The head and hands will be visible.
- If the upper body has been disfigured in death, the coffin will be closed.
- It is usual for all the curtains in the wake house to be drawn, but for one window to be left open in the room where the deceased is lying.
- Mirrors in the house, especially those in the room where the body is lying, may be covered or turned to the wall.