The other evening, as I was driving through a neighbouring town, I passed by some men and women huddled together in groups outside a funeral home. It was a sociable occasion, complete with chat, laughter and warm handshakes as old acquaintances met up again. The hearse, with back door open, waited to receive the deceased to take them on their last earthly journey, accompanied by friends, family and neighbours.
Driving on, I reflected on how whatever has been lost in Irish culture, the tradition of funeral going has not died, especially in rural areas. Attending funerals still remains an integral part of cultural life. Writing in the Irish Times, last month, psychologist, Marie Murray observed: “Traditional Irish funerals have their own tone, history and vocabulary well documented in Irish literature, verse, story and song. They have their past and present rituals. They are comforting in their predictability.”
The tradition of the Irish wake is still going strong. I attended a wake of an elderly neighbour in my husband’s home town a few months back. The deceased lay in the front room in an open casket, as neighbours came and went all evening; stopping to pay their respects, drink a cup of tea (or something stronger) eat the sandwiches, reminisce.
In times gone by, wakes lasted through two or three nights with abundant food, tobacco, snuff, whisky, porter or poteen. Laughter and singing as well as crying filled the air as mourners shared humorous stories involving the deceased. In addition to this seeming merriment, games were played. While this may appear to have been disrespectful of the dead, it was not the intention. It is thought that the merrymaking aspects of these wake customs were influenced by the Irish pagan heritage as well as the need to stay awake for such a long period of time. The church frowned upon these activities and tried hard to discourage the people from indulging in them, mostly to no avail.*
While the three-day wake may be no more, there is still hospitality given to mourners; we may not lament or caoineadh in keening or song, but, as Marie Murray observes ” the beauty of lament is still understood”.
“Funeral attendance is a statement of connection, care, compassion and support. It encircles those who grieve and enriches those who attend because it connects each person there to the profundity of living and the inevitability of death. Funeral attendees witness the raw emotions of grief and the extraordinary capacity of the human spirit to love.”
“Each time we attend a funeral we confront our own mortality. If we have not yet experienced personal loss we are made aware of the emotions and rituals that surround it and the sacredness of sorrow. If the territory of death is familiar to us then resonances are evoked and we have the chance to revisit our own remembrance of others who have died…. there is psychological reason, social solidarity and cultural cohesion in funeral attendance, and even as the ceremonies, the belief systems they operate from or the expression of grief may change, the meaning of marking death remains, and long may we travel highway and byway to do so.”
*Delaney, Mary Murray. Of Irish Ways. Dillon Press, Inc, 1973.