Waking the Dead:
Celebrating the Life and Times of a Loved One
Breda Naughton met her mother’s old boyfriend for the first time at her mother’s wake.
“A man and his wife came to the house,” she laughs, as she pours out her sixth or seventh cup of tea in the kitchen.
“And that man had been my mother’s boyfriend before she got married. I never knew that so it was nice to meet up with him."
In Northern Ireland, it would not be surprising for Naughton to meet someone so close to her mom at her very last celebration. Along with food, drinks and prayers, the Irish Catholic wake provides a time and place for the community to rally together in celebration of someone’s entire life. Although the customs of drinking whiskey until twilight and neighborhood women dressing the body have all but disappeared, the idea of bonding in grief and rememberance remains. For three days, family and friends come together to share laughter, memories and tears about someone they have just lost.
“It was mainly just people coming in, drinking endless cups of tea and coffee,” Naughton continues. “People all bringing food with them. It was just a celebration of her life. Talking, talking, talking. We had tea and sandwiches up until 10 at night. We didn’t bring out the alcohol until then, because we didn’t want people to be there all afternoon getting drunk as skunks. We wanted people to be half-sober at least half-the time.”
The tradition of celebrating–not just commiserating–at a Catholic wake goes back hundreds of years. Though it is mostly done to honor the person who has died, a wake also unites a community in order to help the grieving family. In contrast, Protestant funerals are very private, and closed to the public; only immediately family and close friends are invited.
“I’ve seen people talking to the corpse as if they were alive. Very moving,” states Dara Vallely, as he peruses a photo gallery of the Troubles in the Market Theatre in Armagh.
“It’s a time for healing any grievance that a person might have had against you, or you had against them. And all in all you get a very balanced view of the person's life.”
Vallely, a founding member of the Armagh Rhymers, helped bury two friends last October, and performed at the cemetery along with other members of his folk-theatre group.
“Everybody wants the music at the end, you know,” Vallely adds. “The last one I did, I looked up and everyone was crying. Everyone was bawling their eyes out. I had to look down again very quickly. I didn't think I’d have got through it as easy, but I suppose you harden yourself when you are actually performing. So maybe the music and our rituals reach places that the word can't go, or can't reach.”
For Naughton’s mother, there was little music, and only private prayers, but Naughton says that was due to her mother’s own personality.
“My mother loved gardening, and a neighbor brought over loads and loads of flowers to fill the house,” she recalls as she butters a slice of brown soda bread. “It was very lovely, and very much my mother.”
Wakes also provide a chance for people to slow down their lives. Traditionally, clocks in the house would be stopped at the time of death. At Naughton’s mother’s wake, the curtains were pulled and the television remained off.
“It was a time to reflect,” she points out. “Two to three days of thinking about her. The world around you stopped. And it was a relief.”
However, some would contend that the tradition of wakes is slowly fading away in certain parts of Ireland, particularly in the southern region. Naughton, a Dublin resident, admits she rarely goes to wakes anymore, unless the person who died was a close relation or a very good friend.
“In Dublin, it’s a very big city,” she continues. “If somebody died in the vicinity, it’s very impersonal. It’s really only in the country now, especially in Northern Ireland.”
Vallely agrees: “Nowadays people are racing away. All very busy to get back to their lives. But in the past I remember uncles, and grannies, and other people would sit up all night with the body. Now there’s the odd wake house: funeral homes. And I think that all encourages speed, in and out, and that whole idea of spending a decent, respectful length of time in the house is lost.”
Although the rowdy wakes of past centuries have started to slip away, many people in Northern Ireland still prefer to hold onto these lengthy celebrations. (see sidebar: Changes in Traditional Wakes)
“The fast funeral is not good for the soul and the heart,” Vallely insists. “I don't know if we are a more caring community, or more tied up with traditions and rituals. But one thing I would be against is the fast funeral. If you do have time to choose a piece of poetry or a piece of music as the last thing you do, I think that's good. For the people that you're leaving behind as well. The last kick as you leave the world.”
Not everyone agrees that wakes are losing their significance.
Geraldo McArdle, one of the main Catholic funeral directors in Armagh, maintains that people still take time to honor the dead, even though some of the rituals of the past may occur on a smaller scale.
“The alcohol is pretty much gone though. Thank God,” he says. “There used to be too much trouble caused by people who just wanted to drink.”
McArdle believes that even with the existence of funeral homes, the most important aspects of the wake are still preserved. Most often the body is still taken home for the wake, and the community still gathers to tell stories.
“Talking about the person’s death, and telling stories about the person is still very good therapy for everyone,” McArdle says, reclining in an armchair in the small office he has worked in for more than 60 years.
For Breda Naughton, the stories did more than just ease the grieving process. The tales of her mother's beginnings gave her a more rounded sense of her mother.
"During my mother’s wake, I heard so many stories and learned so many things about her that I’d never heard before.”