The Irish Wake

Note: Another post that has been sitting in draft for quite some time.


Let’s face it, death at any time isn’t nice and the world over people have weird and wonderful ways to deal with it. The Irish, they have a wake which is one of the weirdest out there, but strangely beautiful.

My dad died back in June. I’d come home for a few weeks in between contracts since he hadn’t been well and ended up staying most of a month. It’s my first adult experience of a wake. For most of the recent family deaths I’d been away, Australia, USA, Canada and not made it back. I’d been to some, in and out as a visitor, but not intimately involved.

For those not familiar with it, the body is taken back to the house and set up in a bedroom. Family and friends call by to see the body, dip a finger or a palm leaf in holy water, and bless the body. Some prayers now and then. Mirrors are covered, clocks are stopped. This goes on till the morning of the funeral when the coffin is closed and brought to the church and buried after mass.

So that’s what happened. My dad arrived back in a coffin the day after he died and we up his bedroom. A decade of the rosary was said and a notice went on the internet and on the local radio. “Reposing at his residence”. It sounds like sleeping.

Straight away that’s when the greatest things about the Irish wake kicked in. I’ve seen death in other countries and it’s quiet. It’s so fucking quiet, l0nely even. I wondered where was the support, where was the comfort? Where were the constant cups of tea?

Before the hearse had came from the hospital, family, friends and neighbours were there. Kettles were boiled, coffee pots brought in, a large tea urn borrowed. Plates of sandwiches arrived, boxes of cake, cupcakes by the dozen. Women filled the kitchen and no one could get in or out without a cup of tea. If you’ve seen Father Ted it’s like a hundred Mrs Doyles were telling you to go on go on go on and have a cup of tea.

People came. They saw the body and sat, in the same room, drinking tea, eating biscuits, chatting, socializing, talking not about death but about every day normal things. When you stand back to look at it all, it’s fucking weird.

But it’s also beautiful. The family are not left alone. There’s always some one there. Taking care of everything else while you pick yourself up. Some one got a huge pot of soup from a restaurant in town. I heard later they never charged. People I have never met shook my hand, came with food, arranged little details. Checked on the local Community Centre where after the funeral people would gather for more tea and sandwiches. Checked on the grave being dug, found out who we should talk to about the little details that need to be taken care of, drove people around. Took care of us.

There’s a strange tradition that the body is not left alone. My cousin sat with me and my brother till 4 or 5am the first night, keeping us company till some one would arrive to take over.

After the funeral, after everything is done,┬áthere is a sense of closure. Maybe I’ve been abroad too long that I use that word. Closure. That it’s all done. It’s all over.

But that’s the wake, it’s people holding you up, in a really shitty time, giving you a chance to deal with it so when it’s over you’re better than when you started. It’s a whole community coming together. It’s how the Irish deal with death and it’s strange and beautiful and part of what makes us great.

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