Waking the dead a balm to the grieving process

Thanks to the kindness of fantastic friends and neighbours, we gave ‘Nan’ a great send-off

As this is an Easter column, I thought I would share some recent reflections on death. Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In the New Testament, the event is said to have occurred three days after Jesus was crucified by the Romans and died in approximately 30 AD. Although a holiday of high religious significance in the Christian faith, many traditions associated with Easter date back to pre-Christian, pagan times.

I hosted my first wake recently.

It was for my mother-in-law Marie, a lovely woman with whom I enjoyed 40-plus years of friendship and a shared sense of humour. Almost 94 when she passed away peacefully surrounded by her grandchildren, there was never any doubt that we would wake her in our home, which she shared with us for a decade or so.

The origin of the wake may date back to the ancient Jewish custom of leaving the burial chamber of a recently departed relative unsealed for three days before finally closing it up, supposedly so that family members would visit in the hope of seeing signs of a return to life.


We were introduced to wakes for the first time after moving to the west of Ireland. Until then, our funeral experience had followed the more urban tradition of an evening removal from hospital or funeral home to a church, followed by a formal service the following morning. But in the rural area we live in, the practice of watching over the recently deceased from the time of death to burial is still followed. I have come to appreciate how a wake is an important part of the grieving process.

Thankfully, the more raucous alcohol-fuelled wakes of Irish folklore are no longer with us.

Marie was brought home to us by the Burke family, our local undertakers. She had been embalmed and looked great when the coffin was opened in her living room. Thus began a two-day wake. At no time was she left alone, with family and friends taking it in turn to sit with her throughout the nights – an important part of the waking tradition.

Unbidden, neighbours appeared with chairs, flowers, sandwiches, soup tureens, cooked chickens and salmon. Cyclical pots of tea and coffee emerged from the kitchen. There was no fuss and soon we felt shrouded in a welcome, slow-moving blanket of grief.

At one point I jumped up, concerned about traffic building up on our country road. I needn’t have worried – some neighbours were already directing traffic around our house as those paying their respects came to visit.

No one is invited

No one is invited to a wake.

If you knew the deceased or know any member of the deceased’s family, you should consider attending. The atmosphere is unique. Memories of Marie triggered both crying and laughing as people paid their respects. Groups formed around us and beyond us. Prayers were said. Some people stayed 10 minutes. Others were with us for hours.

There is no formula for a wake.

Things happen spontaneously, but slowly. And this, I think, is key: rather than rushing through your grief you are transported with it at a natural pace. It is hugely comforting as the deceased’s life is remembered and treasured.

Another advantage to having a wake is it allows relatives who live far away time to get home. My son travelled from western Canada; he appreciated being able to spend an entire night sitting with his granny before her burial.

Wakes may not suit every person and every family circumstance. Private, low-key funerals have their place, too. But waking someone close to you – literally staying “awake” to watch over them – seems to set up a soothing of the grief to follow.

Along with fantastic friends and neighbours we gave “Nan” a great send-off.

Thank you everyone.

– Dr Muiris Houston is a medical journalist, health analyst, narratologist and lecturer at TCD, NUIG and the Galway Clinic. mhouston@irishtimes.com