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The traditional Irish wake: Why rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated

“The terrible thing about dying over there is that you miss your own wake,” Dave Allen once said. But is the tradition still as popular?

IRISH FUNERALS HAVE always been known for certain things.

Endless cups of tea, for one… maybe a few pints. Stories almost as endless as the tea. Triangular sandwiches. And handshaking… Quite a bit of handshaking.

“In Ireland when somebody dies, we lay ‘em out and watch ‘em for a couple of days,” comedian Dave Allen once said.

Educating his UK audience on the peculiarities of the Irish funeral experience he explained that “if anybody else anywhere in the world dies, that’s the end of it, they’re dead”.

But in Ireland… ”It’s a party. It’s a send-off. The fella is laid out on the table and there’s drinking and dancing and all the food you can eat.”

“The terrible thing about dying over there is that you miss your own wake. It’s the best day of your life. You’ve paid for everything and you can’t join in.”

Society here has been through some monumental changes since Allen (a Dubliner from Firhouse, it should be noted) made those observations about the Irish wake in the 1970s.

But is the tradition still – for want of a better phrase – ‘alive and well’?

shutterstock_92893810 Source: Shutterstock/Kzenon

‘A cyclical thing’

“It comes and goes in and out of fashion,” according to Jonathan Stafford, managing director of the northside-based Staffords Funeral Homes.

“It’s a cyclical thing.”

While there may have been a dip in the popularity of wakes in the capital in recent years, currently around 40 per cent of pre-funeral gatherings in the greater Dublin area are held in the family home, rather than in a funeral home or hospital mortuary, Stafford says.

“It really depends on the circumstances of the family. Some people – particularly if they’re elderly – really don’t want the stress of having the person in the house.”

“Sometimes that goes for families with young children too – they don’t want it because of the memory it would bring: they don’t want to remember mummy or daddy or even granddad in the house.”

One thing that has changed in the last few years is that people are more particular about how they want the funeral to be arranged, says Stafford.

Whereas previously, it was very much a case that there was a ‘standard format’ of a removal and then a service the next day followed by burial or cremation, that’s no longer the case.

“You might have someone say ‘right, we’ll have mum at the house this evening and tomorrow morning and we’ll go straight to the crematorium’.”

“What we’ve noticed in the last five years or so is that people are a lot more aware of what they want to happen. The changes may be small, but they’re certainly to the extent that we’d notice.”

shutterstock_248621563 Source: Shutterstock/Siwabud Veerapaisarn

‘Personal touches’ 

Karen Dempsey, an inter-faith celebrant, agrees that wakes and funerals have become more personalised over recent years. However, she notes, people are still keen to hang on to some familiar traditions and rituals.

“People have a sense of what they want in their funeral. They have a much stronger sense of what they want for themselves and what they want to be remembered for.”

For those organising a funeral service “they’re feeling more empowered about representing the person who died”.

And while people seem to have a sense that the wake is on the way out, Dempsey believes it’s becoming more and more popular each year.

In her experience, the number of traditional wakes held as part of funeral services in the Dublin area is far in excess of the 40 per cent figure estimated by Stafford.

Says Dempsey: ”I can count on one hand the number of non-wakes I’ve been to.

“Anecdotally speaking, any younger person I know of who has died has had a wake. I can think of two funeral home services.”

shutterstock_83195749 Source: Shutterstock/Patryk Kosmider

Rural decline

In the experience of Fr Brendan Hoban – parish priest in the Moygownagh area of Mayo - the rise of the funeral home in rural areas has meant that home viewings are far less frequent than they once were.

“In the last number of years the funeral home has been a major development, although you would have traditional wakes too. You’d have a mixture of both.

“It depends on the area but very often it’s easier for people who want to sympathise to come to a funeral home.”

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In very isolated areas, where the local undertaker might not be attached to a funeral home, traditional wakes are more common, Hoban says.

“Most funerals now would come from the funeral home. Sometimes the remains might be brought to the home for a number of hours for people to pay their respects.”

In cases where the traditional wake is being observed, little has changed about the way proceedings are handled.

“The corpse is brought back to the house, people come in and are welcomed. Sandwiches are made, and people pay their respects.”

It’s not uncommon for family members to stay in the room with the remains of their loved one overnight, Hoban says.

shutterstock_113984350 Source: Shutterstock/Kzenon

Familiar rituals

While the rural wake may not have changed, Hoban agrees with Stafford and Dempsey that there have been some notable changes in the way funerals are organised in recent years.

“Absolutely. People often like to make it a much more personal thing – be it a tribute at the end of mass, special readings… People engage with it much more.

“Among older people there might be more of a tendency to say ‘no, you go ahead and do it’. Younger people tend to want to put their own imprint on it.”

And though the format of the Irish funeral may no longer be a fixed thing, Dempsey says that Catholic rituals are still commonly observed around services, even ahead of the non-faith-based ceremonies she helps celebrate.

“I think for the Irish psyche it’s important to keep a sense of the Catholic ritual.

“The rosary is still very strong at the wake, in particular” Dempsey notes.

“There’s something in that in that sense of a mantra. There’s a sense of community and a sense of everybody coming into the room and being together.”

“These rituals hark back to the past. But on a soul level they’re so familiar to us.”


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About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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