Since the beginning of time civilisations have had their own interpretation of life, death and the afterlife. It may seem macabre, but our fascination with death is a normal part of the human experience. It can be painful beyond belief, but it is something we all must face. Cultures deal with death in different ways. These differences are shaped by the traditions of our societies and the dominant religion in every culture.
What is the meaning of life? The answer to this question is not simple. People often ponder the reason for their existence in life. Somewhat ironically, we often appreciate the value of something more after we experience the opposite. In other words, you appreciate health when you are sick, food when you are hungry and warmth when you are cold. One thing is certain, you start appreciating what life has to offer when you experience death.
In this article we will explore the Irish wake and Irish funeral traditions, as well as some of the interesting superstitions we follow. We will also include some popular Irish funeral songs and the mythological story of the banshee, the first omen of death in the form of a female spirit.
Are you ready to find out about all of the unique traditions that make up the Irish process of mourning? You will know some of our customs, but more will surprise you.
An introduction to the Irish funeral
Another aspect of death that many cultures share are funerals. No matter where you come from, you’re always going to mourn the loss of loved ones. So what differentiates our way of processing grief in Ireland, from other countries and cultures?
The difference lies in how you deal with death when someone you cherish is gone. In fact, Ireland is one of many countries that have a different method of dealing with death.
Irish culture and heritage have always had eccentric customs and traditions, but you may be surprised when you learn about the Irish wake and the beliefs associated with it. While some countries do carry out wakes, the Irish wake is deemed to be unique to the emerald isle.
Funerals can be seen as a way of celebrating someone’s life which may help to explain some of our unique traditions. It is also important to remember that traditionally, Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country who took their religion very seriously and this is reflected in our traditions.
Every culture has their own way of celebrating the important milestones in life, from birth and marriage to death. Ireland has been influenced by many cultures throughout its history, combining elements of each to make its own unique tradition.
Death and grieving in different cultures
Death is a part of every community and culture. In spite of how harsh death can be, it can also unite people and bring them closer together. This may sound weird, but when someone dies people become more aware of their own mortality and reaffirm what is important to them.
Family, friends, and acquaintances of the deceased gather to grieve and mourn, which offers them a chance to reconnect. Grieving has always been part of death, but we do not all grieve in the same way.
Each culture has their own methods of mourning. The same applies to Ireland; traditionally, grieving in Ireland means carrying out an Irish wake. The wake is a tradition that has been performed for centuries. Despite its significance to our culture, Ireland has grown more diverse. Thus nowadays, the wake is less common.
The wake mainly takes place in rural areas rather than in towns and cities, which are generally more diverse. That is not to say it doesn’t happen in cities, it is just less common. The mass emigration of Irish people to places such as the USA and the UK means that many people with Irish roots may be aware of the Irish wake and want to learn more.
The definition of the Irish wake
The Irish wake is a tradition associated with death and funerals yet surprisingly, it is a kind of celebration. This may sound shocking, however it is not meant to be a fun party. It’s a grieving method where people get a chance to share a special moment with the deceased person. Irish people believe that the wake is a way to let the dead and the living be bound together one last time.
So why is it called a wake?
Transitional periods in ancient Ireland were a time when the laws of nature became a bit blurred. For example at Samhain, the end of the Celtic year and a transitional period from summer harvests to winter, the veil between our world and the Otherworld became thin. Samhain was one of four ancient Irish festivals that date back to pagan times.
Celtic people in Ireland believed that this meant spirits could slip from the after life or Other world into our own world. These spirits were both the souls of loved ones as well as evil spirits and monsters. This actually forms the basis of many Halloween traditions such as dressing up as ghosts and monsters, trick-or-treating and even pumpkin carving (although we used turnips).
Similarly to the changing of one year to the next, death was not believed to be an instant process, but a transitional period. Irish people believed that the soul remained in the body for a day or two. When left left alone it was vulnerable to being taken by evil spirits, so the only way to make sure it safely passed on to the afterlife was by having a wake.
There are two theories about the meaning of ‘wake’. Some misconceptions include assuming wake refers to staying awake around the body or checking to see if the deceased wakes up. However ‘wake of the dead’ used to mean a vigil or guard which makes much more sense when considering the belief that the eceased had to be protected.
Customs of the Irish Wake
The wake takes place in the home of the deceased or in the place of someone who was close to the dead person. A room is prepared and items belonging to the departed are placed near an open window. Supposedly, the open window is the point from which the spirit of the departed would leave the house.
Among the performed customs, lit candles are put at both the foot and the head of the deceased. The departed person is dressed in their best clothes and the body should be visible to the visitors. In some cases, families wrap a Rosary beads around the hands of the dead person.
Although the wake takes place in a specific room, there are traditions that extend to the rest of the house. The following customs are part of the Irish wake; however, some of them no longer take place anymore.
Irish Wake Superstitions include:
- Opening all windows – This allows the soul to move out of the house through the window. Practically speaking this helps to preserve the body
- Closing curtains in every room except where the deceased is laid out.
- Covering mirrors – This ensures the soul is not trapped inside of the mirror
- Stop the clock at the time the death occurred and cover it- This is seen as a way to prevent bad luck, it may also be a way to signify the importance of the person.
- Lighting candles around the coffin of the deceased – The wax was watched to see the pattern it would form, which could signify more death in the area.
- Wearing black – This was a sign of mourning, but was also used to appear ‘in shadow’ so the soul does not accidentally enter your body
The Attendees of the Wake
Those who attend the wake are usually family, neighbours and close friends of the departed. Although it is usually reserved for the parties mentioned, some families allow whoever knew or cared for the deceased to attend. Normally, death and funerals create a gloomy atmosphere. But at a wake, you can come across people who laugh and share fond memories they had of the deceased.
Once all of the attendees arrive, the wake begins. The prepared room embraces the body of the lost loved one. In the past, the body was kept in that room for about three nights, but nowadays it is usually held at home for the night before the funeral only.
This gives the opportunity for the loved ones to visit the house and see the body. Each person is allowed to grieve by spending time with the deceased. They either recite prayers or simply say goodbye for the last time. After that, they get out of the room and share a drink with the rest of visitors. That is how the celebration takes place.
The local catholic priest or a family member who is a priest usually attends the wake. They will preside over prayers at the house. It will usually be the same priest at the wake performs the Irish funeral mass.
The origins of the Irish wake
The real origin of the wake remains mysterious. However, there are some sources that claim that the tradition derives from religious rituals. They say that paganism was the reason that the wake came into being.
At first the Church didn’t approve of the practice, but it was not unusual for Celtic customs to be adapted into Christian celebrations in Ireland when the first pilgrims arrived, so this is a plausible theory.
It is widely believed that the ancient tradition dates back to a Jewish custom. As part of Judaism, the sepulchre, or burial chamber of the recently departed was left open for 3 days. It was then closed up for good, but during the previous days, families would visit frequently in the hopes that their loved one would wake up.
There’s another claim about how the Irish wake started. The claim states that there was lead poisoning in pewter tanks in ancient times. Those tanks held beers, wine, and other beverages that people consumed. The lead transmitted to the cups leading to poisoning. This caused the drinker to enter a Cationic State which resembled death.
As the drinker could regain his/her consciousness after hours or days, the wake happened in order to ensure the person was actually dead and not poisoned. This version of events is seen as more of a myth than an actual fact, however.
The Irish drink culture is something that you have probably heard of, we have embraced it as part of our tourism. If you are visiting Ireland be sure to check out our ultimate pub guide of over 80 bars in various cities.
The custom of a wake is a part of many religions, but it is probably most associated with being a part of the Irish culture. It is not really important how it came to be, because one thing is for certain, the wake allows time for people to process the loss of a loved one with family and friends. Often funeral planning and expenses can take up all of a persons time during the grieving period, so the wake allows guests to celebrate the life of a loved while helping the chief mourners by being present.
The Third Birthday
The Irish wake is pretty similar to a viewing before the funeral. However, people in Ireland believe that is a cause for celebration. In the modern times, the wake celebrates the life of the deceased person. It gave the guests a day to remember and cherish the times they crossed paths with the deceased.
On the other hand, people in the ancient world celebrated death too. There was a notion that death was the third birthday. The first birthday was the day you were born. The second one was during baptism, as your soul was born with new beliefs. Finally, the third birthday was entering the afterlife.
The third birthday is just one of many unique Irish sayings that Irish people use everyday.
The procession of the wake in Ireland
The wake takes place after an embalmer or funeral director prepares the body of the deceased. Traditionally, it was a job reserved for women; it was believed that women washing the dead would bring fortune. However, any professional can do this task nowadays regardless of their gender.
The body would then lay near a window to let the spirit fly away to its eternal rest. The window had to remain open and whoever shut it would be cursed for an eternity. Below are the rituals that follow placing the dead body near the window:
Wailing or Keening over the Dead Body
After preparing the body, it is preferred that it never stays on its own until the time of the burial. If the family members are not around, then there has to be a woman that watches over the body. Wailing and crying is a spontaneous response to death and loss in almost every culture, it is a natural response to trauma and grief.
However in ancient Ireland, while grief was normal, there was also a tradition to be performed. Keening is a form of sean nós singing which was similar to wailing.
In ancient Ireland, you weren’t supposed to cry unless the preparation was over. Otherwise, evil spirits would gather and take the soul of the person instead of allowing it to travel on its own. The wailing would start after the preparation was over, but there was an order to the crying. There had to be a lead keener; she’d be the first woman to weep over the dead body and recite or sing poetry. During that time, all of the women would join in and wail altogether.
Keening was an integral part of the Irish funeral ritual up until the 18th century and by the 20th century it was almost completly extinct.
The process of keening:
- A bard (Celtic story teller) prepared the keen in advance.
- The body was rested on an elevated spot and decorated with flowers. It is still common to place the coffin on top of a table during a wake.
- The relations and keeners were separated into two groups at the head and foot of the body.
- A harp accompanied the lamenting lyrics.
- The lead-keener began singing
- The rest of the singers would join in.
The idea of Keening is similar to the wailing of the banshee which we discuss below.
Throughout the night family, friends and neighbours took shifts sitting in the room with the body reminiscing about the persons life, telling funny stories and enjoying each others company. It was actually quite a wholesome experience as everyone was allowed to be sad but there were also jovial elements in terms of celebrating the deceased’s life.
Of course depending on the nature of the death, a wake can be very different. A tragic, sudden or young death will be extremely sad. Attending the wake of the death of a much older family member who had lived a long happy and healthy life who had only recently fell into ill health is usually a wake that has a lot of joyful reminiscing. In all cases it is important to be respectful.
The Blend of Joviality and Grieving
After the wailing is over, the mourning process starts. For a lot of cultures, this kind of mourning may seem eccentric and peculiar but hundreds of years ago it was common practice in Ireland.
People in the Irish wake shift between celebration and tears. They would celebrate by drinking and eating plenty of food. Singing was also part of the celebration as well as sharing entertaining and amusing stories about the departed person. Interestingly, people would play games too and have fun.
Funeral Games or memorial games, were athletic events held in honour of someone who had recently died. It was a way to create an enjoyable day in the memory of the loved one and memorial events are still common in Ireland.
In the past, the Church never approved of the practice of the wake. It believed it was ill-mannered and disrespectful to the dead even though that was never the intentions of the hosts. The Church had spent years trying its best to discourage the Irish wake, but they failed because ultimately, families and loved ones should be allowed to grieve in the way they want.
In general traditions can be altered and changed to suit the wishes of a person. It is not seen as disrecptful to break tradition nowadays if a person does not want to have a wake, however it is disrecptful to tell someone that they shouldn’t have one if they want to.
Paying the Final Respects
The morning of the funeral was everyone’s last chance to pay their respects to the departed person. On that day, they start placing the body in a coffin. They bring the coffin outside the house in order to take it to the graveyard. It is the time when the mourners kiss the dead goodbye and bid their farewell.
The journey starts by visiting the church and then heading to the graveyard. People carry the coffin and walk on foot until they reach the final destination, the grave yard. Once they reach there, they lower the coffin into the grave and the priest says a final prayer.
The Irish funeral and wake in modern times
As time has passed, the tradition of the Irish wake started to vanish, but it hasn’t ended by any means. A lot of people still carry out this custom in a very traditional way. In the modern times, Ireland became a diverse country. We have made new traditions and lost some old ones, but the Irish wake is still going strong. People in the countryside and rural areas still perform traditions associated with the wake.
Even though people in the cities rarely do the Irish wake, they still respect it. Does that mean that people in modern times are no longer familiar with the wakes? No, they’re still familiar with the custom; in fact, there is an updated version of the tradition as well.
The Irish Wake Memorial Service or Funeral Recption
Nowadays, people refer to it as the Irish Wake Memorial Service. It is more like hosting a party where people celebrate the life of the departed person. In the old days, viewing was an essential part of the wake. People visit the house where the deceased body’s was laid out in their best clothes.
However, things have changed and viewing is no longer required. In actual fact, the Irish wake in the modern world occurs after the burial. In this celebration, people gather to share stories of the lost loved one and have food and drinks.
The Irish wake no longer lasts for days; it only takes a few hours or an entire day at maximum. It is a party where everyone is welcome to attend. It is most commonly held in the local pub, so invites are unnecessary.
Speeches are made, and the family usually caters for guests with dinner and light refreshments. It is almost similar to a wedding celebration, but obviously much sadder. It is a sign of respect to attend the event and it is a way to remember the person in a less formal way.
Traditions of the Modern Version of the Irish Wake
Throwing an Irish wake party is more flexible than it used to be in the old days. People often discuss their funeral wishes while alive, and families usually want the day to represent the person they know and love.
In the west it is common to have the public viewing in a funeral home, where anyone can attend to pay respects. The Irish wake takes place that night in the home of the family, reserved for close friends, family and neighbours. Then the next morning the funeral is held where the public can once again attend. The reception then takes place after the burial which everyone is invited to attend. To summarise the modern Irish funeral process:
- Body is prepared at funeral home
- Public viewing at funeral home
- Wake at deceased’s/family home
- Funeral at church
- Burial / cremation
- Funeral reception at local pub
Of course this is intended to be a fully comprehensive summary of the process. Many people leave out certain elements or follow their own traditions which is completely expected.
Food and Beverages of the Irish Wake
Since it is a party, there must be food and beverages. Whether it’s held in a public place or at a house or even the local pub, the family members usually provide the food and drinks. Some families ask their guests to bring dishes. Appetizers are an essential part of a party; from traditional Irish food to hearty roast dinners.
The wake menu is simple and usually comprises of soup, sandwiches, biscuits and cakes accompanied by tea, coffee and and traditional Irish drinks. Neighbours and close family usually bring a platter of sandwiches, biscuits or desserts with them so families don’t have to worry about making food for guests.
For the proper toasts, beverages should include wine, scotch, Irish whiskey, and beer. On the other hand, there are always the alternative choices for non-alcohol drinkers and the hosts are prepared with non-alcoholic alternatives.
Food and drink is served on the finest of china with the best cutlery. It was custom to have a set of china (dinnerware) that was received as a wedding gift and only used for special occasions, such as a wake or the Irish station mass which blessed a home. Hospitality was always taken very seriously in Ireland.
The main activities of the Irish wake are enjoying the food and drinks while telling stories about the deceased. While people enjoy their time together, pictures of the deceased are usually on display. The reason behind this tradition is to give room for the guests to remember things about the departed and share them.
The atmosphere is not as gloomy as it used to be in the old times. However, there is a fine blend between grieving and joviality. It is as if people in the modern times have taken a different approach in how they perceive death. Even the wailing room that used to take place in the past is no longer practiced. Instead, people sing, tell stories, and enjoy their time together.
The death of a loved one often sees many relatives return home for the first time in years, so there is plenty to catch up on during the wake. It is definitely one positive aspect of the difficult time.
After the Irish funeral
After the Irish funeral mass the coffin is carried into the hearse. A funeral procession begins which involves people walking (or driving depending on the distance) behind the hearse from the church to the graveyard.
Remembering the dead – The month’s mind, anniversary & lighting candles
The month’s mind is a requiem mass that takes place around 4 weeks after the funeral of a loved one. It is a nice way to gather again as a community to honour the recently deceased, but is also a reminder to check in on the family as people begin to move on from the funeral.
For the long term, there is an optional anniversary mass said once a year for someone who has died, upon the request of a family member. This is a nice way for a community to remember someone who died a few years ago and brings a lot of comfort to families. It is common for families and friends to return home and celebrate together after the mass.
It is not unusual to have more than one anniversary mass take place during any given Sunday celebration. Multiple deceased family members are usually remembered together.
It is custom to light a candle for a loved one when in a church. It is a way of mindfully remembering people who have passed away and many older people will do this on a weekly basis.
Funerals in Irish mythology
Irish mythology has always included details about the ancient culture of Ireland. It tells us a lot of fascinating tales about warriors, fairies, magic and misfortune. Funerals have always been a part of the tales of Irish legends. The most common death-related character in Irish myth is the Banshee, a female spirit that wails at the funerals.
After holding an Irish wake party, people head to the funeral. There, they believe that hearing a wailing sound is a sign of the Banshee’s presence. She has always been a sign of doom and misfortune. The reason why this female spirit wails at funerals is to help make people aware of their own fate and destiny.
However, as we now know wailing was actually part of Irish wake and women usually performed the tradition. It would not be far fetched to draw a comparison between the organized wailing and the banshees cry, but unfortunately much of Irish tradition was not recorded until centuries after it happened, so it is nearly impossible to know for sure.
Who is the Banshee?
The name banshee derives from the Irish words ‘bean sí’ which derive from the old Irish ‘bean síde’. This is literally means ‘female fairy’. The Aos sí were the fairy people of Ireland. Originally, Celtic Gods and Goddesses, it is believed that most of the Irish deities retreated underground to the other world and over time, their decedents became the fairies of Ireland.
Some regions picture the Banshee as an attractive young lady while others believe she is an mysterious old woman. Either way, she is a female spirit who weeps and wails.
In the Irish mythology, the Banshee is sometimes depicted as a bird. Legend has it that the bird lands on windows as a sign of death approaching the house’s residents. This could be related to the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of war and death who can turn into a crow and would fly over the battlefield as an omen of death.
Moreover, the Scottish culture also adopts the notion of the Banshee. They believe the banshee to be a laundress who washes blood-stained clothes, while other sources state that the Banshee’s washes the armours of soldiers who are going to die.
What exactly is the role of the banshee? According to the Irish mythology, her wailing and weeping are a sure omen of death. It is almost as if she is breaking the news to the family not that she is trying to warn them. Not every family has its own banshee. Oddly enough, people believe that this female spirit only laments the Milesian descendants. Most of the Milesians are those whose last names include Mac, Mc, or O’.
This may be random, but there is actually more to this story. It was the Milesians that drove the Tuatha de Danann underground when they defeated them. So, the banshee haunting these families actually makes sense in terms of the mythological lore.
It is also said that in the Irish wakes the banshee stays around lamenting the family, which may explain why women wailed at wakes. In mythology it was believed that a real person could act as the incarnation of a god or deity as we discuss in our Queen Maeve article.
Ultimately, many people are said to have heard wailing before receiving shocking news that someone in their family had died.
The Origin of the Banshee’s Legend
How did the legend of the banshee originate? Like everything in the Irish mythology, the origin remains shadowy and enigmatic as our myths were not written down until centuries after they were told.
Some people believe banshees are women who died before their scheduled time or while giving birth. Their belief provides a further explanation of the role of the banshee, a woman who is mourning her own death and avenging the justice of her untimely demise.
On the other hand as we have already discussed, the Irish legends claim that the banshee descends from the magical race, the Tuatha De Danann. Fairies are believed to be descendants of the Celtic gods, and the banshee is considered a lone fairy. Like most of the characters in this mythology, banshees are fairies who possess supernatural powers.
While it would be nice to have a confirmed and fully recorded mythology, there is something mysterious about the Banshee and Celtic mythology in general which adds to its allure.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Irish wake
What is a catholic wake?
A catholic wake is held after the death of a loved one and before their funeral. It is a night of prayer vigil and celebration where people wait up until dawn with the body. People spend the night praying, celebrating the life of their loved one and grieving their death. The body should not be left alone.
How long is a wake?
Guests can stay anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours depending on their relationship with the deceased. Modern wakes usually last over night as people wait up with the body. Traditionally the Irish wake would last at least one day and sometimes up to two or three.
What should I wear to an Irish wake?
While the wake itself can be jovial at times, you should wear dark formal clothes. If unsure, wear something suitable for the funeral mass to a wake, or wear ‘business/professional’ clothes as it is a formal occasion. Men commonly wear black suits and women usually wear black dresses or dark outfits. Keep it simple but formal.
When should I go to a wake?
If you are not too close to the deceased, but want to show your respects you should go early, usually between 5pm to 8pm. This allows you to leave early and give the family time with each other. If you are close with the family and plan to stay late into the night, you can arrive at anytime.
You may even choose to help the family set up early in the day and then return a few hours later for the wake.
Can anyone go to a wake?
If the death notice says ‘house private’, then the wake is only for family and invited guests. However if this is not mentioned, anyone who knew the deceased or their family can attend to pay their respects without an invitation.
Where is the wake held?
The wake is held at the home of the deceased or at the home of someone close to the deceased.
What is a wake like/ What happens at a wake?
You may hear both laughter and tears at the wake. The atmosphere is respectful and people try to celebrate the life of the deceased, but it is still a sad day. The mood will change from wake to wake, depending on the circumstances of death, so try and read the room to see if the general vibe is jovial or sad.
What to do at a wake/funeral wake etiquette?
You should first pay respects to the family who will more than likely be in the room with the body. You should then stand at the body of the deceased and say a prayer or spend a minute with them. If unsure what to do after this, just observe what other people are doing. It is okay to feel a bit awkward, the family will appreciate your visit to the house.
There may be a condolence book to sign near the door. TAs the family are often so busy during the wake, they won’t get a chance to speak to everyone, so signing your name is a great way to show your respects.
What to bring to a wake?
You can bring a condolence card with you to show respects. If you are close to the family, it is nice to offer bringing food with you to ease their stress. A plate of sandwiches, tin of biscuits or cake is a nice gesture. You could even make dinner for the family in the days around the wake or funeral as they will be too busy to cook.
Close neighbours will bring pots, chairs and tables to the house.
Should I attend wake or funeral?
You can attend both. The wake is more personal, you are in someone’s home and are often speaking directly to family of the deceased. The wake is good for seeing the deceased and speaking with their family.
The funeral is more common for people who want to show their respects, but may not know the family of the deceased well. You will still get a chance to speak to the family after the mass, but it is certainly less intimate.
Can a viewing and funeral be the same day?
A viewing in a funeral home is an alternative to the traditional Irish wake. It is usually the evening before the funeral but can be held on the same day if the family wishes.
What is the difference between a wake vs viewing?
A wake takes place at home and lasts a full night while a viewing usually takes place in a funeral home and lasts around 2-3 hours. At wakes it is normal to stay a few hours or even overnight, but viewings only last a view minutes per guest. People enter the room and shake hands with the chief mourners and then say a short prayer at the coffin before leaving.
What is the difference between wake vs funeral attire?
There is not much difference in attire for wakes and funerals. Clothes should be formal, professional and dark in colour. A wake can be slightly less formal, but you won’t be out of place wearing a suit or formal dress.
Final Thoughts on Irish wake traditions
Death is a saddening incident that can happen to anyone, but Ireland seems to have found a way to deal with the grief through celebration. In the past Irish people believed that being dead means transferring to a peaceful afterlife which was a cause for celebration. We have continued this tradition into modern times to try and celebrate the life of a loved one while grieving.
The Irish wake, is an attempt to celebrate the life of a person and be close to loved ones during the difficult process of grieving. It may seem unusual to an outsider, but it definitely a positive way to embrace hardships as a community rather than leaving people to mourn alone.
We have tried our best to include as much Irish wake traditions as possible, so not every Irish wake looks like the one we have described. Traditions vary from village to village and every family does their best to create a funeral that their loved one would appreciate. This is more important to follow than any tradition mentioned.
Learning about other cultures has always been interesting. It changes your perspectives and teaches you to see things differently. Cultures have always shared similarities and differences, and death is no exception.
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