People often ask, why I love funerals? My ability to be a funeral celebrant is built on dealing with death from such a young age. Growing up in Ireland, I have been surrounded by the traditions and customs regarding death and funerals all my life.
I grew up in a small country town in Northern Ireland – a country that experienced a civil war, and has known a great deal about death – both violent and natural. It is also a country with a history of rich customs for honouring and mourning their dead. A lot of these traditions remain common practice today.
These traditions around death are very important, and create a deep sense of ritual. They give focus to the process of grieving, and are just as important as any other life events, such a birth and marriage.
The most well-known tradition in death is the Irish Wake. A Wake is a social gathering, and is usually held for 3 days before the funeral. This allows people who may have to travel from far away to visit.
The traditional Wake has been a part of the Irish culture for generations. It came about because it was important to be sure that the deceased person did not wake up, and that no one got buried alive accidently. This custom of waiting for the person to “wake” soon became a time to celebrate and mourn together. This was an opportunity for friends and family to come together, to eat, drink and remember the deceased’s life.
Traditionally, a room is prepared and the deceased remains are usually placed near an open window. This is because the Irish believe this will let the spirit peacefully leave the house. All the curtains in the house are drawn. The body is prepared and laid out in a bed, or in an open coffin, and the body is never left unattended. Friends and family stay with the body in shifts throughout the day and night.
During the night they share wonderful stories of the deceased until morning. Out of respect, clocks are stopped at the time of death, and blankets placed over mirrors. Candles are lit and placed around the deceased.
Sometimes there is singing and card games, and it is customary to deal an extra hand for the person whose life is being celebrated. Although the atmosphere at a wake may be sombre, you will often see people laughing through their tears, as they share memories of their loved ones.
As families prepare for the Wake, the house usually becomes a hive of activity. Soon after the death, word of mouth will spread, and close neighbours and friends will arrive at the house to volunteer to help in the kitchen, serving tea and sandwiches. As a young girl, I could be often found in the kitchen of a wake house washing dishes or serving tea.
People attending Wakes may not even know the deceased, however they may have a relationship with someone in the bereaved family, so they attend to show solidarity to the deceased’s family. People make a lot of sacrifices to attend the Wake or funeral, in support of those they care about. Visitors who come to the Wake are invited in to view the body. People will remain at the Wake anything from 10 minutes to a few of hours or days – depending on how well they know the deceased.
Typically, men often visit the Wake House late at night, and sit with the body during the night. Close neighbours and friends often volunteer to do this, so that the family can get some rest.
In the past, these customs meant that very often children were exposed to, and understood, the reality of death from an early age. It was not unusual for children to attend a Wake, and death was considered a natural part of life, and they recognised grief was a natural response. In fact, I remember being at the Wake of my grandfather, and seeing my first dead body when I was around 4-5 years old. Nowadays, there is probably a lot more consideration given to the impact this may have on kids.
However, in my own personal experience, I feel very grateful for the exposure this had on me. In fact, I feel it gave me a healthy understanding of dying; and later in life, as I held the hands of two of my grandparents as they took their last breath, I had no fear, and although it was incredibly sad, I considered these moments as very important in my life.
At the end of the 3 days, the coffin is usually shouldered from the house – while the cortege follows closely behind. Pallbearers are chosen by their relationship to the deceased. The coffin is carried some distance towards the church, before it is transferred into a hearse. The cortege will usually pause outside the home, or place of work, and many people will bow their heads in respect of the dead as a hearse passes.
A month after someone dies (the “months mind”), and on every anniversary of their death, family and friends come together once again. This is time to remember their loved one, and to celebrate their life. Often a mass would be held to mark the occasion (remembering that a lot of funerals in Ireland are religious).
We can learn a lot from Irish funerals. The Irish do death very well. There is something to be said about the way they are so open about death and dying. These traditions allow time for grieving, and are filled with love and help, to make the initial mourning process a little easier. They give a wonderful sense of community, and offer an outpouring of support, and an atmosphere where those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, can be surrounded by others. And although death is still an incredibly difficult time for all those involved, these rituals provide an environment for tears, laughter and stories.
I am extremely grateful that growing up in Ireland, has given me a rich understanding of the importance of rituals around death; and as a funeral celebrant, although I can’t heal their grief, I am comfortable in a space to allow them the opportunity to make their way through this difficult time.