An Irish Funeral Celebration

by MSO
Irish cemetery with crosses and tombstones

This cemetery on Inishmore island, Ireland is still in use today.

No emotion was left out during the mourning process of the Irish wake as mourners expressed their loss through tears, laughter, heartfelt poetical lamentations, games and boisterous songs. However, while the traditions of Irish wakes have grown more tame, the ceremony of the wake has long provided an opportunity to those mourning a way of celebrating the departed’s life.

At the moment of death, typical Irish tradition required that all clocks be stopped and mirrors turned around or covered. Prior to the preparation of the body, a window was opened to allow the spirit of the deceased to depart the land of the living. It is often considered bad luck to stand next to an open window in the company of the deceased as it is said to block the spirit from departing to the spirit world.

Neighboring women would wash the body of the deceased, preparing it to be laid out on a bed or table in the largest room of the house. The body would be draped in white linen adorned with black or white ribbons, however if the body was that of a child, it would be covered with flowers.

Meanwhile, lit candles would be placed around the body and clay pipes, tobacco and snuff would be placed throughout the house and next to the deceased, to which male visitors would be expected to take at least one puff, as the smoke is said to keep evil spirits from finding the deceased.

After the body is prepared, it was customary that the deceased be attended to at all times. To avoid the attraction of evil spirits from taking the soul of the departed, crying couldn’t begin until after the body had been prepared, at which time, the Caointhe (lead keener) was first to lament the deceased. Keeners, especially the Caointhe, recited poetry lamenting the loss of the loved one in addition to crying and wailing.

Generally lasting two to three nights, wakes consisted of a series of merrymaking that included food, tobacco, snuff, liquor and games. Mourners would share humors stories involving the deceased, played games consumed whiskey or the illegal Irish homemade brew known as potion. While this may seem disrespectful of the dead, it is thought the merrymaking aspects of the wake to be influenced by the Irish pagan heritage as well as the need to stay awake for such a long period of time.

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