Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland

Photo by Tuende Bede (Pixabay)

In Memory of the Irish Wake

Marie-Louise McGuinness

A funeral home has opened in our small Irish village.

Most Anglo-Saxon cultures wouldn’t bat an eyelid at this development, but here, in this small, parochial corner of the world, there has been consternation, a collective shaking of exasperated heads and a lament for the culture of past generations. Do funeral homes sound the death knell for a culture that gives due respect to the dead or are they a timely adjustment to the busy lives and belief systems that have been eroded through scandal and timely Irish autonomic development?

Death in Ireland has been its own pastime for generations, from a time when news of ones passing whispered up through live-stocked fields, the hoards would descend upon the grieving to share stories and pray the rosary around a cheap wooden coffin. It was a kindness afforded to the family who would not have to sit in their feelings and tears for the customary three days between death and interment in the family-packed soil of the local graveyard.

There has often been a hackneyed depiction of the Irish wake as a drunken get-together. Though anyone who has grown up with the rural death traditions knows that this is widely off the mark, a caricature invented by those who could not fathom that people would choose to look upon the lifeless shell of a loved one.

In a cultural landscape that has become increasingly sanitised,  to interact with a corpse has become a horrific example of morbidity that can be unpalatable to those unaccustomed to the tradition.

As the society of Ireland has morphed into one resembling of our British neighbours, the one thing we held close to our hearts was our celebration of death. Morbid perhaps, but our newspapers still roll pages of death notices and acknowledgements consulted daily before the news of the day is looked at. Where foreign papers dedicate full page obituaries to those deemed notable, the Politicians, the Scientists and the Celebrities; those whose lifetime achievements warrant those columns of expensive newsprint and gushing sentiment; the common people, those who also lived rich lives, who laughed, cried, and loved sink silently into the ground with only those closest lamenting their loss. We can argue that the Irish give due heed to the everyman, the friend and neighbour. That is a wonderful thing.

I was 10 when my aunt died at the age of 40 from a most aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis. She had lain for 10 years in the back bedroom of my Grandparents cottage, paralysed from the neck down and unable to speak coherently. There was no shelter from her illness as we helped our Granny take care of her in our school holidays. She was professed to be a living saint as she clutched her timeworn picture of St. Martin in her withered hands, her suffering on a par with any of the names beatified and listed each evening as we recited the Rosary. When she passed, it was deemed a kindness from God, a blessing of sorts. Yet, as grief permeated through the small home, we children were tasked with carrying decorative cake stands overflowing with home-baked goods and sandwiches to those who came to offer their condolences and thank God that she was finally taken to live with the Angels in heaven.

We were taken into the room where her body lay, surrounded by gold crosses and lit candles and instructed to kiss her waxen forehead. I understand that to some nowadays this would be akin to child abuse, death being something unsanitary for the innocent minds of children and as a parent, I can understand.

Nowadays we shield our children from the darkest aspects of earthly life. In this millennium they are protected and coddled to an extent that would have seemed unnatural in the 20th Century. I believe that in this era of constant information, we are all too aware of the dangers that lurk around every corner and have adopted the helicopter parenting model. Maybe that is a good thing and maybe it is not, I suppose only time and distance will tell but this was 1991 and things were different then.

I remember tracing the glued line of my aunt’s lips and begging her for forgiveness. I wanted to be forgiven because I feared her much more when she was alive than dead. In the coffin she had no expectation of me, she couldn’t get frustrated as I didn’t understand what she was trying to say, I didn’t worry that I would hurt her both physically and emotionally by my lack of intuition and childish fear.

The wake was a time for me to make peace and hope that she was now in a place where she understood.

Only a year later the ritual was repeated as my beloved grandfather reposed in the same house. The same position of the coffin and the same people praying, heads bowed before drinking their tea served again by us in the crockery last used at the previous wake. At this time, death was no longer shocking to me, there was no reticence at looking upon the lifeless body of a man I loved beyond compare. I had no fear as I placed my small, warm hand onto his cold one, threaded decoratively with the tarnished-chained rosary beads that he prayed with every day, always close to his hand in times when he sought comfort or guidance. Instead, I allowed my prayers to join those with the adults, closed my eyes and bowed my head to the sharp tears of loss that streamed down my young cheeks.

Granda’s death brought even more responsibility to us children as now we were tasked with the honours of the funeral. I would read at the service, while my siblings would carry both coffin and gifts to the altar. As children we felt capable and prepared for such undertakings, it was our duty after all.

It was only after a spate of family deaths in 1998 at the age of 17 that I felt myself rail against the traditions fostered through many generations. As I processed the strong emotions of youth and devastation, I couldn’t help but feel the wake tradition was deeply unfair on the grieving family.

To me, it felt like an intrusion, that our grief was being used as entertainment to friends and neighbours who hadn’t bothered to cross our threshold for years but who could come and be served tea and sandwiches by those whose hearts were breaking, who ached to retreat into a darkened room unfettered by weak condolence and sentiment. In a wake house there is no privacy. Chairs parsed from parish halls line each wall, the kitchen filled with local women coming to wash cups and cover curling crusts with swathes of kitchen roll to keep them fresh for the next cohort. There was no space or time for a home-cooked meal, instead our nauseous bellies were silenced by endless egg and onion, the cheaper buns and plainer biscuits.

At wakes, my aim was to keep busy, keep moving. Don’t stop lest a well-meaning arm should reach out and touch my body hanging together on adrenaline and purpose. For crying at a wake is a privilege afforded to a grieving widow or neighbours feeling the guilt of avoiding meaningful communication when the dead person was dying.

At 17, I would have said that funeral homes were the way forward, that the premise of ‘Six-Feet Under’ had it right. Allow people to grieve in the safe confines of an alien home, somewhere without memories, with staff to serve drinks and where the doors could be locked at night and the grieving allowed the pretence of sleep in their own beds and time to cook a meal to be eaten warm, if the stomach could handle it.

I expressed my feelings to my parents at the time and they couldn’t seem to understand my point of view. Especially when I expressed my preference for cremation, I felt that they thought me somewhat unholy. A wake to them was a necessary showing of respect to those we had loved, deeply, but to me, it was unfair to those left behind.

I must admit that this was an opinion that I held throughout the years of my young adulthood.

When my mother died in June 2019, from a similar devastating illness that had plagued her sister many years before, I never felt that my opinion on the wake tradition in Ireland would change as much as it did.

We had expected her to die for a while and had been called to gather around her bedside in the palliative care ward, weeks before she finally passed. Numb and emotionally drained, our thoughts turned to preparing the house for the wake.

Although it seemed unfair at the time, in hindsight, I can see how the distraction was helpful. The atmosphere around a deathbed is weighted and uncomfortable, but absence can be justified by carrying out preparative tasks. Therefore, cleaning the house and directing painful feelings into manual productivity can be wildly cathartic, if exhausting.

When she finally left us, I have to say the benefits of the wake became clear to my now fully grown mind. As people from our past entered our home and stood at the coffin, I learned so many things about my mother than I have ever known. The memories of others painted a picture of her more rounded than of her being just our Mummy. I learned of the friend who eased the strife of a new mother by taking her screaming baby for hours in the depths of the night so that she could sleep. I learned of her as the kind shop owner who gave her stock away to young families who could not afford the clothes and a neighbour, unable to go into detail, told the story of a woman who saved her in a way that her thanks could never be expressed.

Now having enough family able to take the burden of the tea-making and service, I was able to partake in the true aspect of the wake. The remembrance, the vivid depicting of a life that was lived in real time, a picture made from impressions and experiences of a community. There was laughter and stories told in the vein that we imagine evenings were spent here in Ireland before the dawn of television, when people would partake in the practice of ceili-ing.

Even in this world of protected Children, I chose to bring my children to the Wake, to see their grandmother still and pale, to see that her soul had departed her body. Yes, they cried and needed words of comfort, but it was also a lesson in the reality of life, that people die, and death is not as scary as popular culture leads us to believe.

Presence at a wake or funeral has become an obligation that many wish to be absolved of and with the onset of Covid and social restrictions imposed at that time, it has become easier to avoid the timeworn traditions of the generations before. ‘House Private’ litters the death notices even as social restrictions have been lifted and it cannot be denied that many of us sigh in relief at these words as it absolves us of the guilt we may have felt previously at choosing to forgo our deeply imbedded responsibilities.

But now, I see that the loss of the Irish wake as we have known it for generations, could be the loss of something so beautiful and powerful in the experience of being human and that is truly sad.

Marie-Louise McGuinness comes from a wonderfully neurodiverse household in rural Northern Ireland. She has work published in numerous literary magazines including Splonk, Bending Genres, Intrepidus Ink, The Metaworker, JAKE, Flash Fiction Magazine, Roi Faineant Press and The Airgonaut amongst others. She enjoys writing from a sensory perspective.