My first experience of ‘Waking the Dead’ was in Rural Ireland more than half a century ago. A ‘Wake’ is still taken very seriously in the more rural parts of Ireland although, as with many old traditions, one fears that soon, ‘Waking the Dead’ will be replaced by someone called an ‘Events Organiser’ and not a family member. A ‘Wake’ can indeed be something of an event. A gathering of relations and neighbours and beyond will come together to remember the dead and to console the bereaved. It works! The expectation of thick boiled ham sandwiched between equally thick slices of home made bread- with fruit cake-sponge cake- and huge slices of apple tart to follow is worthy of that expectation. For the uninitiated there will be lemonade and tea, and for the ‘Heathens’ Guinness and whisky, but not before the deceased is drowned in Holy Water which is an obligation of each attending the ‘Wake’. Sainthood is often discussed at this time!
Aged just seven years of age I was to attend my first ‘Wake’. My parents told me that a neighbour of ours, a very old lady, had died, and that we were going to her house to ‘Wake’ her. I had in my innocence of just a few months previously, come to grips with the word-Dead. Father Scully had told us in our Catechism class that when a person died, the Holy Spirit would come and enter into their body through a hole in their head and take that person’s soul straight to Heaven. He told us that one day we too would go to Heaven and be united with people we had loved on Earth. I spent some time that day wondering if I could feel the hole in my head!
People were piling into the old lady’s house as we arrived. The daughter of the house, whom I thought was and old lady herself, was greeting the ‘Mourners’- I’d heard Daddy ask Mammy if she thought there would be a lot of mourners. I stayed quiet because I thought that mourners sounded foreign! I could hear people saying to the old lady’s daughter that they were ‘Sorry for her troubles’. Daddy had told me earlier to be quiet and only to speak when I was spoken to. When it was my turn to greet the daughter I told her ‘I was sorry for her troubles’-Daddy kicked me on the ankle!
We went into a small room, it was very warm. There were people sitting on chairs all around the room. Mammy whispered, that after we had paid our respects to the dead old lady, we had to go around the circle of people saying we were ‘Sorry for their troubles’. She said they were the ‘Relations’ and that their hearts were broken! I heard that word ‘Respect‘ so many times that day that when I told my teacher, Sister Bernadette, about the new word that I had learnt- she told me to ‘Have some respect‘ and to hold out my hand while she whacked me with the ruler.
The dead old lady was in a big wooden box in the middle of this small warm room. She was very quiet alright! I remembered then, that sometimes she would be standing by the gate of her house when I was walking home from school. She would pull a ‘Fox’s’ mint from her apron pocket, give it to me, and tell me to be a ‘good girl’-why were people always telling me to be a good girl? And now, she was lying in this wooden box. Her eyes were closed. She wasn’t wearing her apron so there was no chance of a Fox’s mint ! Rosary beads were wrapped about her hands but her lips weren’t moving. Mammy lifted me up and told me to kiss her. Daddy was always saying that I had enough rattle to wake the dead- This, I thought, might be a good time to use that rattle! Mammy said to show ‘respect‘ and to do what I was told! ‘Isn’t she a beautiful corpse’, she said- I’d never heard my Mother lie before!
It would be many years before I finally understood the meaning of an Irish Catholic Wake-but more so- the true value of such.