The Ritual of the Wake

by M-Gillies
old drawing of a traditional Irish wake

Irish wakes used to take place in the home of the deceased but the practice has largely died out today.

From a highly reputable source, a WAKE, as a verb is known as stopping or causing someone to stop sleeping or to bring to life as well as to realize. Linguistically, the word wake is connected to the word watch, as in surveillance. And according to that same reputable source known as the Oxford English Dictionary, the word WAKE as a noun means a watch, held bedside the body of someone who has died, as in, a funeral wake.

When it comes to the modern funeral, the process can be divided into three parts. The Visitation (wake), the Funeral and the Burial. While each has its own significant ritual, it is the wake that has been widespread and commonly practiced for over centuries.

During a time when cultural norms were wrought with superstition, a wake began merely as a vigil. Practiced by a pair of friends or family, they would sit by the body, whether it be an evening of quietly conversing or, as the Irish have been infamously known for doing, boisterous partying.
However, the reasons for a wake found their own ritual out of practical necessity. From keeping the rats and other vermin away, to archaic fears of superstitious beliefs, such as maintaining a close watch over the body to ensure evil spirits had not entered the house and whisked away the soul.

A wake, to say the very least, found its ways as a ritual partly to ensure the dead were truly dead after discoveries had been made of individuals being buried alive due to a limited knowledge of catatonic comas and the decrease of breaths. Nowadays, with medical science vastly improved and the further usage of embalming, the risks of being buried alive have decreased to non-existence.

While the use of wakes continues even to this day, the significance hasn’t strayed far from the purpose that originated it. Wakes continue to be practiced to this day, often interchangeably with visitation. Though the premise remains the same, there are many alterations to how a visitation is held. What once used to occur in the home of the deceased, a visitation now takes place in a funeral home as a subdued viewing – this means that unlike the Irish custom of partying, a visitation is a quiet gathering of friends and family.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the wake is less important. What a wake does is provide loved ones with an opportunity to come to terms with the loss they are facing – but where the funeral acts as a ceremony honoring the deceased, a wake is an opportunity to find solace in the loss amongst those who had been impacted by the same individual.

A wake is a chance for friends and families to come together and support one another in a time of grief. It is a moment to say a private goodbye to someone who had been close, but a wake also becomes an environment in which, through conversation, the family and friends of the deceased can come together and understand that they are not alone in their feelings of loss.

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