The History of a Traditional Irish Wake

By: Anderson Funeral Home
Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The History of a Traditional Irish Wake

The traditional Irish Wake has a long history. Although some areas still practice the traditional wake, many are now replacing it with a time of visitation. The old custom came about – in part – because it was important to be sure that the dead did not wake. The time of watching over the body was to insure that the person was deceased.

The custom of waiting for the person to “wake” soon became a time to celebrate and mourn together. Family and friends would gather in the home to share stories, to share food, and most often to drink in excess. The wake became a party.

Elements of a Traditional Irish Wake

The body would be prepared (normally dressed in white) and laid out in a designated room at the home of one of the family members. This room would be shut off from the merriment going on with the rest of the wake. The body would never be left unattended, just in case the deceased did “wake.”

The length of the wake would be determined by the funeral service. Most often the wake would begin as soon as the body could be prepared and it would continue until the family left for the funeral service.

All the clocks in the house would be stopped at the time of death. It was a sign of respect for the deceased.

Most often, all mirrors would be turned around or covered.

Candles would be lit and placed around the deceased.

The Rosary would be said at midnight and most visitors would then leave. Those closest to the family would remain throughout the night.

Professional mourners were often employed to display grief for the deceased. The more unexpected or tragic the death then the louder the mourning would be shown.

Games, music, and merriment occurred in the rooms outside of the mourning room where the deceased had been placed. These games helped to lighten the mood and pass the time while waiting to see if the deceased would wake.

Food was an important part of the celebration. A full meal would normally be served.

Although the exact reasons behind the traditional Irish wake may have been lost or clouded, the emotions involved have not changed much over the years. A wake is no longer about ensuring that the deceased does not revive, but instead about the healing process for family and friends left behind.

Wakes provide the environment for tears, laughter, and memories. These traditional events allow each individual to mourn in the way that heals their own pain, and to do it in an atmosphere surrounded by others that loved and mourn the deceased in their own way as well.

For many areas, the traditional Irish wake has been replaced with the custom of visitation. Most families no longer display the body in their own homes, but have turned that ritual over to the funeral homes and churches. Despite the shift, in some areas the traditional Irish Wake continues to hold its ground.

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