The wake for the dead is a long and important tradition for people to pay their last respects, to discuss and tell stories through the night, often with a drink.

The Irish Wake is perhaps one of the best known funeral traditions associated with Ireland. The Wake, the glorious send-off of departed loved ones, is a prominent feature of Irish funeral traditions, but is seen less and less often in modern Ireland and is now almost unknown in the cities. But in many country areas the practice of watching over the recently deceased from the time of death to burial is still followed and is an important part of the grieving process, which is why many Irish funerals, outside of the cities, are still preceded by a wake.

The origin of the wake probably dates back to the ancient Jewish custom of leaving the sepulchre, or burial chamber, of a recently departed relative unsealed for three days before finally closing it up, during which time family members would visit frequently in the hope of seeing signs of a return to life.

A more recent story, which is almost certainly a myth, is that the tradition of the wake in Ireland came about as a result of the frequent lead poisoning suffered by drinkers of stout from pewter tankards. A symptom of this malaise is a catatonic state resembling death, from which the sufferer may recover after a period of a few hours to a day or so, to the relief of those watching for signs of such an awakening.

Whatever the origins, there is no doubt that the ceremony of the wake has provided comfort to those who have nursed a loved one through a terminal illness or have had them snatched away by disaster without the chance to say goodbye. It is an opportunity to celebrate the departed person’s life in the company of his or her family and friends and to mark their departure from their home for the last time. A wake is a scene of both sadness and joy as the end of that life is marked but the life itself is remembered and treasured.

First broadcast 26th January, 1975

An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries