What is a Traditional Irish Wake?

The Irish are renowned for their vibrant and jovial entertainment industry – namely their iconic music and dancing – and their approach to death and wakes is no different. In fact, their wakes are anything but sombre.
What is a Traditional Irish Wake?

Ireland is known for its music, dancing, Guinness, and its famous stew (it’s delicious, by the way), but the country and its people are also renowned for their approach to death and grief. While the process of grief is always a difficult one, the Irish have found a way to combine cheer and sadness, making their wakes a little different to those of most Western wakes.

Rather than spending the day in complete mourning, those who attend an Irish wake are encouraged to celebrate life – to throw a party of sorts – in honour of the person who has died.

What are some traditions of an Irish wake?

A range of traditions can be practised at an Irish wake. Here are a few of them:

The opening of a window shortly after the person has died.

Immediately after a person has died, a window is opened. This allows the person’s spirit to leave the room. After two hours, the window is closed to ensure their spirit doesn’t return to the body.

Curtains are closed and mirrors around the home are either covered or turned to face the wall.

This is seen as a sign of respect to the deceased person, prompting them to think about their loved one rather than thinking about themselves or their own appearance.

All clocks in the home are stopped at the time of death.

This is to mark the time of death. The clocks are then set back to normal after the funeral. (There’s also an age-old myth that choosing to not stop the clocks will bring bad luck to the household).

Candles are lit and placed at the head and feet of the deceased person.

Along with the candles, a pair of shoes are symbolically placed near the feet of the deceased to help them walk through purgatory as they leave earth and make their way to their final resting place. These candles and shoes remain in place until the deceased has left the home.

Loved ones view the body.

After the deceased is prepared for burial, their family and friends are invited to view the body. This is said to protect the soul – with family and friends surrounding the body, evil spirits are unable to take the soul. Those viewing the body are also asked to not stand between the body and the window as this may prevent the soul from leaving the room.

What does one wear to an Irish wake?

If you’re heading to an Irish wake and aren’t sure what to wear – we’ve got you covered. The Irish tend to dress quite conservatively to a wake, burial, and when visiting the home of the deceased. It’s recommended to wear black to all events, but there has recently been a shift away from an all-black dress code, so it might be worth asking the family of the deceased person whether they have a particular dress code in mind.

How long is an Irish wake, and where is it usually held?

Some attend an Irish wake for a few minutes, while others will stay for hours. Prior to the wake, the deceased is taken to a funeral home to be cleaned, dressed, and placed in a coffin. Once prepared, the body is then returned to the home and displayed for the wake. Once the wake commences, it’s important to ensure the body isn’t left unattended for too long.

What do you do at an Irish wake?

Traditional Irish wakes are a little more jovial than most cultures and traditions. Delicious food, drink and tobacco are shared while family and friends share funny memories and stories of the deceased person. Games, pranks, music and dancing are all traditions carried out at an Irish wake – and can sometimes last all day, and all night – aimed at easing the mourning process for the family of the deceased.

Wrap up

While the death of a loved one is tough on all those who knew them, Irish wake customs exist to ease the suffering of those mourning. Through music, games, dancing, and delicious food and drinks, these events are a celebration of life, and they are infused with customs that make you smile, laugh, and remember your loved one(s) in a cheerful light.

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