Have you even been to an Irish Wake? I have just read “My Father’s Wake” by Kevin Toolis. The book is subtitled “How the Irish Teach Us to Love, Live and Die”. It is a powerful book written by someone who has engaged head-on with the harsh reality of death in many of the most grief-stricken parts of the world ravaged by war, hunger and disease. As a funeral director, what particularly interests me are the sections which talk about the Irish Wake. My initial observation is that the Irish Wake is deeply rooted in a particular culture and experience of community and as such it cannot, and should not, be thoughtlessly duplicated elsewhere.
The Quaker Way and the Irish Wake
I remember once attending a Quaker memorial service and being struck by how well it worked because most of the people present were themselves Quakers and understood the Quaker way of doing things – the silence, the absence of ritual and the talking when moved to do so. Other ‘sharings’ at funerals I have witnessed have felt more awkward and less successful.
I feel the same about the Irish Wake. For myself, the holding of a vigil and wake feels like a healthy, natural response when someone dies at home. Its essence is to integrate death and dying back into the community and not hand it over to what Kevin Toolis calls the Western Death Machine.
But I can’t see this happening unless there is a close knit community to hand whether this is a traditional one as in rural Ireland or a modern equivalent. That said, I do believe there are ways in which we can embrace and humanise the dying and death of those with whom we share our lives, whether as friends, family members or neighbours.
What Can We Do?
First of all, we can stop avoiding the subject of death and dying, seeing them for what they are – a natural part of life and something we all encounter at some stage in our own lives and eventually undergo ourselves. It may come across as a cliche but it is good to talk about and share the actual experience of death and dying.
Second when someone is dying we can trust our instincts and impulses to do the unexpected like cancelling plans, following a hunch, knowing we want to do something or be somewhere. When you have the conversations around death and dying, it is noteworthy how often people are led to behave out of the ordinary and how on reflection this turns out to be just right.
For example, the impulse to jump in the car in the middle of the night or book a plane ticket so that we can see a friend or parent one last time before they die. There is always an element of risk in following our instincts. We may get it wrong or nothing happens. But the potential reward of getting it right far outweighs the embarrassment of not.
As Kevin Toolis observes, “If you are a relative or friend and care enough, be there for the dying days. There is nothing else in your life that will probably ever be as important … [or as] real.”
Following Our Hearts
Third, we can follow our hearts and respond without thinking too much about how another person is going to respond – for example, cooking food for a neighbour or taking their dog for a walk. Simple practical things that are helpful or things we say or do like reaching out to touch someone or sit beside them. Again there is a risk we might misread the situation or allow our own agenda of wanting to feel helpful or important take over. But the other person can always say “thanks but no thanks” or back off.
Honouring the Death Itself
Fourth there is usually no need to rush things, particularly just after someone dies. It depends to some extent on where they are – at home, in a nursing home, hospice or hospital. If not at home, it’s always worth finding out what the procedures are beforehand so we can be prepared and explain what we would like to happen. If at home, it’s good to give a death time to settle before the body is moved and collected.
How we honour death and a dead person is very much an individual matter for families and friends to do themselves. The key point is that we don’t have to hand it all over to others and being hands-on ourselves enables us to connect with the reality of their death in a natural and time-honoured way.
At Greenwood Funerals, we are keenly aware of the importance of moving a dead person’s body with care, gentleness and love – allowing those present to be part of the moment and not hiding behind the facade of being the funeral director.
Bringing the Body Home
Fifth, a person’s body can always come home one last time – perhaps the afternoon before the funeral so that family, friends and neighbour can hold a wake and vigil suited to their own temperament and culture. Or in the hearse on the day of the funeral so that family and others can follow in their own vehicles or even on foot.
One of the most vivid memories I have as a funeral director is a man and his three grown up sons carrying the coffin of his dead wife on their shoulders down a country lane to a hearse waiting almost a mile away. There was no practical reason for this. But emotionally it was what he wanted to do and what had been done for his father.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line in all of this is not avoiding the reality of death. Kevin Toolis writes “Death is nothing strange or terrifying, but a constancy within life. Another act of mundane fearlessness”. It is borne more easily within community than without – “taking the weight” whether literally in carrying and lowering the coffin into a grave or metaphorically by being more involved, accepting and present in ways that our true to our shared humanity.
This is what all of us can learn from the Irish Wake.