Opinion: the many unique customs around death, wakes and funeral rituals in Ireland are now restricted to curb the spread of the coronavirus

The coronavirus crisis means that Irish people must call a halt, temporarily at least, to many unique customs surrounding funerals. While actual funeral ceremonies continue, these are carried out under strict social distancing rules to stop the spread of the virus, which amounts to the very opposite of Irish traditions of waking the dead.

The Christian funeral is of profound importance to Irish society, allowing a celebration of the life of the deceased. The rituals surrounding it allow the bereaved to mourn, grieve and hopefully recover in a healthy manner, yet many people are being denied the opportunity to say a final goodbye to their loved ones.

Community gatherings

The way the Irish do funerals is known and often admired the world over and involves physically gathering together with large numbers of people. It is a way for the community to mark the passing of one of their members and show solidarity to those who have lost their loved ones. In Ireland, you don’t just attend funerals of people you know - there is an unspoken rule that you attend funerals of those closely related to people you know too. Irish funerals can draw large crowds into the hundreds, usually culminating in a great queue at the end of the service for mourners to shake hands and personally express sympathy. For the bereaved, seeing people turn up in this way acknowledges their grief and can be of enormous succour.

Most other Irish funeral rituals are now restricted to curb the spread of the virus. The wake that allows time spent with the body can help enormously in the grieving process, but must now be largely abandoned. The funeral service and burial with the time taken and numbers involved, the choir, the guards of honour, the long procession must now be severely curtailed. After the burial, time taken to share food with neighbours and friends is no longer allowable.

In Ireland there is not only an expectation that you attend funerals, but also that your next of kin will give you a "good" and "proper" funeral after you die. We are all being denied this in the age of Covid-19.

The evolution of the Irish funeral ritual

Many Irish funeral rituals evolved over time to become what we are familiar with today. In recent weeks, we have seen communities doing their best to acknowledge the passing of one of their own, with socially distanced crowds lining the roads to see the funeral procession.

This evolution of funeral traditions is par for the course in Ireland, where old customs are routinely modernised to keep up with the times. Death notices, originally published in newspapers, became required listening for many on local radio, and now appear on dedicated websites. In recent years, memorial cards have included more modern design. Recently, the post-funeral tea and sandwiches in the house became a meal at a local hotel.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, RTÉ Midlands Correspondent Ciaran Mullooly reports on the difficulties faced by the bereaved, undertakers and clergy following restrictions on funerals due to Covid-19

With all these changes and more, the Irish captivation with funerals never faltered. They remain part of a deep-seated respect for death that is innate in Irish society. But where did this come from and what did these customs themselves evolve from?

Irish funeral rituals evolved from a set of much older customs. Over the years, some were actively discouraged by the Roman Catholic church and others were discarded as we Irish strove to become more "civilised". Before the Great Famine, more primal aspects dominated Irish wakes and funerals, handed down from ancient times when fear of the dead was very strong. Wake rituals came about as a type of appeasement of the dead from pre-Christian times when the dead were regarded with fear, wrote Seán Ó Suilleabháin in Irish Wake Amusements. The wake therefore was a feast in honour of the person who had passed on, to placate them and say farewell.

Professional keeners

The thought of paying a professional mourner to perform at a funeral may seem bizarre to us today, but it was the norm at many Irish funerals in the past. Professional keeners performed a type of wailing song that lamented the dead, praised the deceased and expressed grief, but also reprimanded them for dying. This was in opposition to Christian funerary rites where the Resurrection is emphasised. It did not help that keeners honed a wild look with dishevelled clothing, bare feet and loosened hair. The Catholic church was actively hostile to them, and some priests even publicly chastised and jostled with keeners at funerals. The tradition had largely died out by the beginning of the twentieth century.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, John Cooke reports on the funeral of Fr. Joe Haugh.

Smoking clay pipes

Another lost tradition is the custom of smoking from clay pipes, which were filled with tobacco for visitors to the wake house to take. People would light the pipe and take a pull, exclaiming "Lord have mercy on their soul". Non-smokers were fully expected to partake of the ritual and snuff was also taken. After the funeral, the wake pipes were ritualistically broken in two and buried outside. This persisted until the late 20th century, when trays of cigarettes were passed around at wakes instead of pipes, before the custom died out completely.

To stay awake: old wake amusements

There are a profusion of Irish wake customs, but protecting the corpse, the bereaved and the house was crucial, as it was believed that the time between death and burial was a liminal, dangerous one when bad spirits were about. Rooted in Judeo-Christian religion, the wake is for three days prior to that person’s burial, and the corpse is observed to ensure it does not awaken or "wake". The corpse was not left alone in the lead up to the funeral, and mourners would sit up all night accompanying it.

After the final prayers of the evening, "wake amusements" or games kept mourners awake through the night. Stories were told, usually funny tales featuring the deceased. Waking games included performing tongue twisters, feats of strength, acrobatics, tricks and pranks. Sometimes organised fights took place. Some games included mock weddings, mock confessions and "kissing games" which had lewd and erotic overtones.

Funeral rituals have been temporarily abandoned before in Ireland in bids to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as cholera in 1832 and Spanish Flu in 1918

In what might seem shocking to today’s reader, the corpse itself was often included: it was not unknown for a clay pipe to be given or a deck of cards placed in their hands. There are stories of the corpse being made to talk, puppet-like, by mourners, and even taken up for a dance.

Despite these lively customs, the overriding mood at a wake was of reverence for the dead, and disrespect was not meant. Merriment was dispensed with if the deceased was a young parent, a child or had died tragically.

To consolidate control over Irish souls, suppression of such ‘pagan’ customs was necessary by the Roman Catholic church and after the Famine many of those traditions died out. However, at a typical Irish wake today, mourners tell stories and share a laugh when the formalities are out of the way. This can be a wonderful relief from any tension and sadness. Such merriment is permissible at Irish wakes and is most likely to have descended from these ancient customs. But such customs can only work when there is a gathering.

Funerals in a time of pandemics

Wakes and funeral rituals have been temporarily abandoned many times before in Irish history in bids to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as cholera in 1832 and Spanish Flu in 1918. This was often met with resistance, but Irish people today have temporarily and unquestionably cast-off their traditions to protect their community, something which is profoundly commendable. It remains to be seen what further appropriations the Irish funeral will accrue in the face of Covid-19. Irish funeral customs will evolve as they always have, but Irish people will always retain their respect for honouring the dead.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ