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Cheers and Tears: What to Expect at an Irish Wake

Wakes are an enduring tradition in Ireland and for families of Irish heritage everywhere. They last one to three days before the funeral, depending on how well-known and beloved the individual is. If you’ve never experienced the vitality and emotion of an Irish wake, here are a few things you should know.

Wakes are among the most enduring traditions in Ireland and for families of Irish heritage everywhere. They last one to three days before the funeral, depending on how well-known and beloved the individual is. If you’ve never experienced the vitality and emotion of an Irish wake, here are a few things you should know. 

Expect an Open Casket

An Irish wake takes place at the funeral home, where the guest of honor is in an open casket (usually). According to those who have attended numerous wakes, it is common for guests to approach the casket to pay their respects. This might include praying, voicing their love and regret for their death, or slipping a photo, a note, or a small memento into the casket. 

It is also common for guests to make numerous comments about their loved one’s final appearance. You might hear:

  • “She looks so peaceful.”
  • “He looks wonderful.”
  • “They (the funeral home) did a great job.”
  • “They really captured what he looked like in life.”
  • “I remember when they bought that tie/dress/necklace.”

These comments are not meant to be disrespectful. Instead, they express comfort in seeing their beloved in familiar clothes and countenance. 

Expect a Break at a Nearby Bar or Restaurant

The schedule for an Irish wake goes something like this:

  • Visitation with the family (and the open casket) at the funeral home for a couple of hours in the late afternoon
  • Break for dinner at a nearby bar or restaurant
  • Return to the funeral home for a few hours, the day ending around eight or nine in the evening

And yes, there will be drinking during the dinner break. Beer, wine, cocktails, Irish whiskey – it’s not mandatory, of course, but there is a reason why Irish wakes have a reputation for including spirits in the tangible sense of the word. Naturally, there are many stories about the deceased and numerous toasts made to their memory. After drinking and eating, the family returns to the funeral home to welcome other guests before going home. 

Funeral homes have differing rules about drinking alcohol on the premises. It has been known for a mourner (or family member) to step outside for a discrete swig from a personal flask to steady their nerves. Drinking is done at a local pub or restaurant unless there is also a reception at the funeral home. 

Expect to Laugh As Much as You Cry

If you’re unfamiliar with an Irish wake, it might seem jarring to hear people in mourning tell funny stories, crack jokes, and laugh. 

In Irish culture, wakes often involve a mix of emotions, including laughter and celebration of the deceased person's life. Sharing funny stories can be appropriate and is often encouraged to lighten the mood and bring warmth and camaraderie. The Irish wake tradition often emphasizes celebrating the person's personality, achievements, and the joy they bring to others.

There will also be tears. Humor is an effective coping mechanism, but for those who are grieving, it is a razor-thin line between laughing and crying. Funeral homes generally have a good supply of tissues. You can also carry some in your purse or pocket (or use a handkerchief). 

Expect to Pray

Many Irish families are also Catholic or Christian, so they find comfort in the belief that their beloved will join those who passed before them in eternal life. The family’s priest might stop by the wake and lead the mourners in a prayer.

Practicing Catholics have specific rituals and liturgies to follow that might be unfamiliar to you. Praying the Rosary is a form of devotion in the Catholic faith that involves reciting specific prayers and meditating on events from the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The Rosary is a set of beads, with each bead representing a particular prayer or meditation. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say, but be respectful while others worship.

History of the Irish Wake

Historically, some believe that Irish wakes are connected to ancient Jewish customs and the belief in the possibility of revival. Some attribute “wake” to the vigilant watch kept over the body until burial. In earlier times, attendees guarded against evil spirits with candles, tobacco, and snuff, aiming to protect the soul from demons. Clocks stopped, mirrors were covered, and myths emerged to ensure the safe passage of the departed to the afterlife.

Another theory suggests that the Irish wake tradition and term originated from using pewter cups and containers containing lead. Lead poisoning was thought to bring about an unconscious, death-like state. To avoid burying the living, family members would stand watch over the body before burial to confirm the person's actual demise.

Despite Boisterous Reputation, Irish Wakes Are Healing

New research from Ulster University suggests that engaging in traditional Irish wakes might contribute to better coping with bereavement. The study, involving over 2,000 participants, focused on prolonged grief disorder (PGD), defined as a lingering yearning for the deceased lasting more than six months. 

In Ireland, approximately 10.9 percent of grieving individuals met the criteria for PGD, contrasting with the UK's higher rate of 15.3 percent. The research, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, suggests that "cultural differences with regard to death may be an explanatory factor" for the lower prevalence of the disorder in Ireland. 

The authors highlighted the Irish tradition of holding wakes as a social gathering before a funeral, providing a supportive space for family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances to pay their respects, potentially contributing to the observed differences in grief outcomes.

Wake or Not, Choose Your Farewell

While the traditions of Irish wakes provide a beautiful framework, it is essential to remember that each individual and their loved ones have unique preferences when it comes to saying goodbye. Taking control of our funeral arrangements empowers us to ensure that our final farewell truly reflects who we are. Whether we choose an Irish wake or another personalized ceremony, the journey toward acceptance and healing begins with proactive planning and open communication.