By Marie Conlon
The Wake was a custom where mourners gathered in the persons own home
to keep vigil over their dead until they were buried. It was an important part of
the grieving process and was seen as a chance to celebrate the dead person’s
life and to offer condolences and support to the family. There were no Funeral
Parlours back then and the Wake took place in the persons own home.
The person would have been anointed in the previous few days, and family
members would have been with them near death, praying for the safe delivery
of their soul. The priest and doctor would be informed once the person had
died. Word would soon spread in the neighbourhood.
All the clocks in the house were stopped at the time of death as a mark of
respect, and the window in the room opened to allow the spirit of the
deceased leave the house. The curtains would all have been drawn, and the
mirrors turned around or covered. The washing of the body was usually done
by a few neighbouring women who had experience in doing this, and the
shaving of a man was done by a man. The person was then clothed in the
Habbit which was blue for a woman and brown for a man. The person’s hands
would have been joined as if in prayer and the Rosary Beads placed in them. A
new pair of white sheets were used to prepare the bed for the wake, and it
would be moved to the centre of the room to allow for chairs to be placed on
either side of the deceased person.
A small table would be placed near the top of the bed which was covered with
a white table cloth, and on it was placed a crucifix, a little bowl of Holy Water,
and 2 lighted candles. There would also have been a framed picture of our Lord
on the wall in the room.
It was the man’s job to visit the undertaker, buy the coffin, and prepare the
wording for the Newspaper notice, and if there were family members abroad,
as was often the case, it read “American papers please copy” at the end of
the notice. The plot would have been chosen or if there was already a family
plot instructions were given to the grave diggers. It would also be his job topurchase the food and drink which had to include whiskey for the wake, and
long ago they would also have bought tobacco, snuff and clay pipes (some
women used snuff as well) also poitín was occasionally was brought to the
The immediate family would need to buy mourning clothes for the days ahead,
the white shirt and black tie and their best suits. The immediate female
members of the family always wore black clothes and a black hat.
Neighbours were always very helpful at this time, they made sandwiches, and
cakes, and helped with setting the table in the kitchen, again, with a white
table cloth, glasses and the china sets and a large tea pot were taken out.
These close neighbours would stay with the family which relieved the burden
on them by making tea, and washing dishes through the time of the wake.
“Sorry for your Trouble” was the first greeting of a person who arrived to
sympathise with the family and they would then be escorted into the darkened
room where the body was laid out, they would first bless themselves and go to
the top of the bed and touch the joined hands of the person and say a silent
prayer for them after sprinkling Holy Water on the body. The Priest would
come to the home and recite “The Rosary”.
The body was never left alone and there would always be a group of people
who stayed on through the night in the room, and laughter and crying could be
heard from this room sometimes even singing old songs. Laughter as they
recounted funny stories involving the deceased man, and tears as they realized
he was gone. This “Staying with the Body” gave the poor tired family members
a chance to get some sleep to help them cope with the days ahead.
The following day the in the evening the Hearse arrived, or before motor
hearses, a horse drawn hearse was used and there were plumes attached to
the bridles and the deceased was brought to the Church, Mass was usually
celebrated, and the following morning the “Funeral Mass” was said, and after
that the deceased was brought to the Cemetery for burial. The family and
neighbours would then retire to a local Hotel, or Public House or the family