Traditional Irish wakes are being replaced with visitations in Caitlin, NY funeral homes, but the traditional Irish wake has a fascinating history.
Begun, of course, in Ireland, Irish wakes served a practical purpose. Friends and family watched over the body of the person who was thought to have deceased to watch for them to wake up or ensure they didn’t awaken – hence, the “wake.” In a time that didn’t have modern medicine to know for certain that someone was dead, and not wanting to bury someone who was unconscious, but still alive (which happened from time to time), a set period of time was established to wait for burial.
This period of time consisted of family and friends gathering together to celebrate and mourn. They would eat, drink (often to excess), play music, play games, and share stories about the dearly departed. In short, the wake became a party.
However, the deceased was always honored. The body would be prepared and dressed in white. The deceased would be laid out in a specific room in the home of a family member. That room would be shut off from the party that accompanied the rest of the wake. However, someone was always with the body in case the person did wake up.
How long the wake lasted depended on when the funeral service was being held. Because embalming and cold storage were not available in the earliest times of this custom, wakes seldom lasted longer than 48 hours. Wakes started as soon the body was prepared and dressed and ended when the family left for funeral services.
An interesting Irish wake tradition was to stop all the clocks in the house at the exact time of death for the deceased. This was considered a sign of respect for the person who had died.
Additionally, all mirrors would be turned around or covered immediately. The exact reason for this is unknown, but two prevailing superstitions were that if a living person looked into a mirror after someone died, they would die soon as well and that mirrors reflect everything and store all they reflect, so if a corpse or ghost passed by them, they would become permanent sources of bad luck. (This practice is still common, even in the absence of Irish wakes, especially in the South and in Judaism, where there is a belief that evil spirits may attached themselves to reflections in mirrors.)
Next, candles would be lit and placed around the body of the deceased. The Rosary would be recited at midnight, and most visitors left afterward. People who were closest to the family stayed through the night.
Although professional mourners are considered to be a new addition to funeral services, in traditional Irish wakes, it was commonplace to hire professional mourners to show grief for the deceased. If the death was untimely, unexpected, or tragic, more professional mourners would be used so the sounds of grieving would be louder.
The emotions involved in the traditions of Irish wakes are the same emotions that people feel today when a loved one dies. Although most American funerals are pretty low-key (you can thank the Puritans for that), the idea of celebrating and mourning the loss of a loved one continues to be an integral part of how we say goodbye.
For more information about traditional funeral customs at Caitlin, NY funeral homes, our sympathetic and experienced staff at Roberts Funeral Home is available to help. You can come to our funeral home at 279 Main St., Wellsburg, NY 14894, or you can contact us today at (607) 734-7811.