Friday, July 26, 2019

In Praise of Wakes.

The loss of a loved one lasts forever. That is hardly surprising. How could it be otherwise? The death of a loved one - a child, a parent, a partner, a friend can be devastating. Sudden unexpected loss is the worst. No time for goodbyes. No time for adjusting to the inevitable. Your whole life turned upside down in a second and in an incomprehensible way. Little wonder your grief lasts forever.

But we slowly learn to live with that loss. We slowly reshape our lives around their absence. We heal. We will never be the same again. How could we be? We adjust slowly but surely. Because we have to. Healing is helped by the knowledge that we were loved and that we love the one we mourn. Death does not change that.

Friendship does not cease because someone dies. Your friend is still your friend. They are no longer there for you to share life with but they remain your friend nonetheless. Forever.

The Irish wake is a great comfort and a real help to the bereaved coming to terms with the death of a loved one. Even as the news of a sudden death shocks us we know as family members or friends that we have to be with the next of kin at this terrible time. We have to get the house ready for the dead person coming home. And as we wait we talk about what happened to him or her and as neighbours and friends gather we tell our tale again and again.

By the time the dearly departed arrives home we are ready for them. The coffin is laid out in the living room. The carpet of mass cards slowly grows as mourners call. Small children wander in and out of the room. Sandwiches arrive, pots of soup. Someone gets a tea urn. Everyone is given something to eat. The kitchen is coming down with stews, pizzas, sweet cakes, wee buns and biscuits. And everyone talks. About the dead person. As we watch over him or her there will be tears and laughter, with banter and slagging taking the edge momentarily off our deep sadness.

The wake probably goes back to ancient times when a burial chamber was left unsealed for three days in case the deceased was in a coma. Relatives gathered to watch in the hope that the unfortunate ‘corpse’ recovered consciousness. 

The Catholic Hierarchy in Ireland used to condemn wakes and wake games or songs. Probably because they were originally pagan practices. These type of wakes are rarely held these days. Nowadays wakes are much more sedate affairs. But they still allow for craic, reminiscence and story-telling. 
But according to Michael J Murphy, the folklorist, the old people back in his time and before, did not want a quiet wake and said so. That would be a slur on the corpse. So games were played by the mourners as they gathered around the corpse. In those days tobacco, clay pipes and drink was supplied. Singing was customary. The games included ‘My Man Jack’ ‘Rose o’ Roses’, ‘I’m in Love’ ‘Marrying Out’. These games were really courtship rituals. Organised by older people with the younger men and women their targets. Other traditions have similar - or used to have - similar fertility rituals. The presence of the dead person was important. The logic was straightforward. An affirmation that life continues even in grief. But no wake games were played at the wake of a young person or after a sudden death or if a friend of the deceased objected.

We are the poorer for the loss of these traditions. They disappeared as modernity - the radio, emigration and urbanisation among other developments - changed the lives of rural people. In those days story-telling, including games and singing or dancing were the main means of amusement when people gathered in each-others homes for wakes or weddings or just for fun. Now television is the main centre of attention in peoples’ homes. But television thankfully has no place at a wake. So people talk.

Never was there a better form of counselling for the bereaved. A good wake will not make up for our loss. But it is a first step in adjusting to that loss. Long live the Irish wake.

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