Irish Wakes

It is often said that the Irish “do death well”. It is quite normal for people who never met the deceased to attend their funeral because they are a co-worker of a bereaved person. As I’ve been researching and revising death & burial recently for the International Institute of Genealogical Studies, I wrote some material on wakes, which didn’t quite fit the course content, but provides very interesting social and historical context, so I’m putting up here.

Wakes (as they evolved in the 19th century) are usually a Catholic ritual. While Irish Protestants would engage in various aspects of it, it would not have the same elan. Quakers by contrast did not have any wakes or observe any of the rituals discussed here; they preferred to keep funerals a sombre and solely spiritual occasion.

After a person died, their eyes would be closed. The family would leave them for a period. All doors and windows in the home were opened. This allowed the soul to leave. If there were any clocks in the house, they were stopped, and would remain so until after the burial. After a few hours, the family would begin preparations for the wake and funeral. This included:

  • Collecting food, drinks, and tobacco/snuff
  • Final outfit for the deceased
  • Washing and laying out the body for viewing by the community

Once ready, the whole community would visit to pay their respects – first to the deceased, then to the surviving family. The body would not be left unattended until burial. Frequent prayers would be said.

In this era, the wake also included entertainment in the form of singing and dancing, games (often involving manipulating the corpse). Many of these games had some sexual connotations and were officially condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Another important part was the lament – usually improvised by family but they might also hire professional “keeners”, always a female task, to perform a formal expression of grief. In this, the deceased was directly addressed, their exploits recounted, and genealogy of the individual might be included.

At the end of the wake, the deceased was placed in a coffin and then Mass was held in the house. It was then conveyed to the graveyard. Further lamentation would accompany it on the journey. Many old graveyards have a “coffin rest” stone at the entrance where the coffin would be temporarily rested to give the carriers a break before the burial.

In the 19th century, mourning clothes were worn by those classes of society who could afford extra clothes. Poorer people would often wear a black armband as a signifier of bereavement.

For most the 20th century, the process of waking the dead would have several parts:

  • Wake – where the deceased is laid out at home (or later at a funeral home). This would be a smaller less elaborate version of the 19th century ritual. It was curtailed by the requirement from the Catholic Church to bring the body to the chapel overnight before the funeral, specifically brought in as a method to curb raucous and alcoholic-laden wakes. The church was overly concerned with morality.
  • Removal – the remains are brought to the church for overnight reposing. In Catholic churches, this would involve a short service on arrival and a decade of the rosary.
  • Funeral – the traditional church service in the religious denomination of choice, usually with a eulogy from a family member and musical accompaniment.
  • Burial – usually attended by a large subset of those at the funeral. Cremation is more commonplace in the last 50 years but still not the norm. In rural areas, it is quite normal for the congregation to walk from the church to the graveyard behind the hearse.
  • The afters – a gathering of the bereaved family and friends, usually involving food, drinks and reminiscing.
  • The Month’s Mind – a church service held 30 days after the death, usually attended by family and close friends.

In the 21st century, the removal to a church is often omitted, and many people now chose a secular ceremony held in the funeral home or crematorium.

Sources for further reading:

Lysaght, Patricia, “Old Age, Death and Mourning” in Eugenio F. Biagini and Mary E. Daly, The Cambridge social history of modern Ireland (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017), p287-291.

Ryan, Salvador (ed.), Death and the Irish: a miscellany. (Dublin, Wordwell, 2016).

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