Wednesday 16 January 2019

The removal's dead - long live the wake

Folklorist Billy Mag Fhloinn says the Irish see death as a communal experience
Folklorist Billy Mag Fhloinn says the Irish see death as a communal experience

Peter McGuire

It's a pattern that funeral directors, priests and bereavement support professionals say they are noticing all over Ireland: In less than a generation, the removal of the body to the church on the evening of the funeral has almost disappeared. Many bereaved families say that what effectively amounted to a two-day funeral was too gruelling. David Fanagan of Fanagans funeral directors, which has locations throughout Dublin, says 90pc of funerals now take place on one day. Wakes are becoming more common.

The wake - the ancient custom of staying with the dead body until the funeral, and receiving visitors to the family home - never went away in large parts of Ireland; it's still what is done in the west and north and it never lost its popularity among older Dublin families. There are few adult Irish people who haven't attended at least one.

"Anecdotally, I am hearing of more wakes," says Dr Susan Delaney, bereavement services manager with the Irish Hospice Foundation. "We are social beings and the wake brings us together to mourn, to hear about the funny side of the dead person and to share our stories with each other. We often get to learn things about the person that we didn't know before."

Dr Billy Mag Fhloinn is an archaeologist, folklore lecturer at the University of Limerick and humanist celebrant. "The removal - a Mass in a church or at the funeral parlour on the evening before the funeral, with the body left overnight in the church - may be a blip in our cultural practice," he says.

The Catholic church spent many centuries trying to stamp out the wake, and records from the National Folklore Collection at UCD show that drinking, card games and dancing - even, on occasion, with the corpse - were once popular at wakes. Wakes were condemned from the pulpit and from the Vatican as debauched, licentious and unholy, but many Catholics largely ignored the priest's instructions and had wakes anyway.

"The removal took the body from the family and brought it to where the church thought it should be," says Mag Fhloinn. "Now, as a society, we feel much less bound by church authority and this may be why more people are returning to a custom that never went away. In Dublin, the middle classes shed the older tradition and looked to England for traditional cues on death, but in older areas of the city, among more established and working-class Dublin families, the wake still mattered."

We're fairly open about death in Ireland. People who barely knew the deceased attend the funeral to support the wider circle, and Irish comedy is full of tropes about mammies reciting the death notices. But we "do" death better in Ireland than in other countries?

"We tend to see death as more of a communal experience, and funerals are a public expression of this," says Mag Fhloinn. "We show up at the house with huge amounts of food so that the family can immediately engage with the grieving process. For all kinds of cultural reasons, we like to say that we that we are better at death than other countries in Western Europe, although maybe they grieve in a way that works for them. But we do have a good way of approaching death."

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