Death where is thy sting-a-ling

Satirist George Ade once said that in the city, a funeral is just the interruption of traffic whereas in the country, it is a form of popular entertainment.

Things have changed mightily in rural Ireland in the past twenty years in relation to wakes and funerals and the emergence of the funeral home has accelerated that change dramatically. The older generation have mourned the passing of the old customs (no pun intended) and on closer inspection it’s easy to see why.

In the not too distant past, many rural Irish folk called the say a person died his “third birthday”. Their reckoning was that natural life began on the first day of birth, supernatural life on the second day when they received the sacrament of Baptism, and the third when they died and entered eternal life. Waking the dead was almost a festive occasion in many parts of Ireland, provided the occasion was not too austere. This would be if the deceased was a young person or the death was the result of a tragic accident. If the dead person had lived a long and productive life, this was the forerunner to two or three days of unbridled fun and entertainment. People regarded it as a fitting farewell to a loved one, and , believing that they had gone to a better life, they celebrated. One old south Donegal character, just recently deceased himself told me that he always attended a wake “fully armed”, i.e., a bottle in every pocket. A common belief or perhaps the most plausible excuse for frivolity was that liveliness was important because excessive grieving over a departed soul could give it a tormented afterlife.

The first duty of the chief mourner was to stop the clock at the time of death, to answer the most frequently asked question. “What time did he/she die?” Up to the late 1950’s, white clay pipes were pre-filled with tobacco, and all mourners were excepted to “take a pull”, whether they were a smoker or not. Many older women especially, took advantage of the situation and sucked the pipe for most of the night. It was frowned on at other times. The Rosary is almost mandatory at wakes and in many cases, the “trimmings’ were as long as the prayer itself.

These include intercessional prayers that implore the saints in intervene on everyone’s behalf. The response in usually “ Pray for us”. Weariness at one wake in Co. Derry prompted some improvisation among a section of the men when they responded “ make tae for us”. Strange customs and practices prevailed at Irish wakes, many only dying out in the last thirty years. Older people in north Derry told of the practice of putting a hammer, flint and tinder into the coffin before the lid was secured. The hammer was for knocking on Heaven’s door, the flint and timber for lighting the way through the “valley of shadows”. In the same part of Derry, the large toes of the corpse were tied together to prevent the ghost from walking. A widespread practice, not that long abolished, was to give the dead person’s clothes to a deserving person known to the deceased’s family. The recipient was required to wear them to Mass for three consecutive Sundays and should illness prevent him from attending, the clothes were sent along to the church in a bundle. The belief was that the dead person would be more regally clothed in the next life because of their generosity in this one.

Many old sayings given birth at wakes prevail to the present day. In some cases, when a person was buried, a piece of string was attached to one of the fingers and passed up through a pipe to the surface where it was attached to a bell. If the person in the coffin regained consciousness and moved, the bell would ring and alert a guardian, paid by the family for such an eventuality, and he would raise the alarm. This was the origin of the saying “saved by the bell”. Only wealthy families could afford to pay watchers at graves. It was also customary for a bowl of snuff to be placed on the chest of the dead person. This had a dual function in the snuff being a desirable commodity, brought the mourners close to the coffin to say a prayer for the deceased . Should the person in the coffin not be dead, the bowl on his or her chest would be seen to rise and fall, though no record exists of anyone being rescued by snuff. So many came forward that the bowl had to be replenished regularly, giving rise to the saying “disappeared like snuff at a wake”. A variation of this theme was in vogue in the 1880’s in other parts of the British Isles when, instead of snuff, a bowl of salt and some bread were placed on the dead person. The bread was eaten by a depraved person known as a “sin eater”, the belief being that the sins of the dead person was absorbed into the body of the “sin eater” with the bread. The salt was a protection against evil spirits.

Wakes were frequently used as occasions of great merriment and games playing. In the 1930s in west Donegal, there were not enough chairs at a wake to accommodate the large numbers of mourners. One of the families hit on the ideal of bringing in bags of potatoes from a barn to be used as seats. The younger lads gave up their seats to the older folk and sat on the potatoes. As the night wore on and a fair amount of alcohol had been consumed, events became quite boisterous. The young bucks started throwing potatoes at other mourners when they were not looking in their direction. As the only light was the Tilley lamp, the semi-darkness was their favour. The banter only stopped when a spud hit the dead person in the coffin, and another hit a clay pipe being “reddened” for the corpse by an elderly neighbour, who then wanted to fight with all the young lads.

In 1908, a cobbler from Co. Monaghan was known far and wide for his lenient attitude to those who were slow to pay him for work done. At his wake, the house was full to overflowing as the countryside came to the final respects. Nearing midnight, the deceased’s wife went inside and called all to come inside to join the others. Thinking that another Rosary was to be recited, all duly flocked in. The house was absolutely packed and to everyone’s surprise, the wife locked the door and put the key into the pocket of her apron. She then proceeded to pull a stool from under a table, stand on it, and from another pocket, brought out two pages from which she started to read the names of all those who owed her husband money, and the amount each owed. The list was as long as undertaker’s overcoat.

Co. Sligo fared no better. One of two bachelor brothers died, leaving the other heartbroken. On the first night of the wake, things started off quite dignified, but as the night wore on, the drink took hold and the craic became mighty. Unable to contain himself any longer, the other brother jumped up and shouted, “it wasn’t for sport that poor Seamus died”. At most wakes, the faults and failings of the deceased are forgotten, temporarily at least, as his good points are paraded openly. Two brothers attending a wake in Co. Tyrone in the 1930’s, paid their respects and sat down to enjoy a cup of tae. One of the brothers, not having lived in the locality for some considerable time, asked one of the locals about the character of the dead man. “Would he have been the kind of man who would steal money”, he enquired.The other thought for a moment, looked up at the ceiling and then asked “How much”.

Games made up the best form of amusement at wakes and many of them ended up in fights. In the 1880’s, a common game was “hearing confessions”. A selected man would put a red ribbon or a straw collar around his neck and sit in a corner to “hear confessions”, The rest of the company looked on as the “penitent” confessed his sins. Nobody heard what those sins were as he mostly mumbled gibberish but the “priest” would act horrified from time to time. He imposed a severe penance, which had to be performed in the wake house, causing much enjoyment because of the embarrassing nature of the penance. Should things get completely out of control, the host would place a candle in the corpse’s hand because, according to tradition, that would make everybody fall asleep. There were almost two hundred recorded wake games, with names like The Burning Toothache, Kissing the Goat and the Red Thief of the Horses. The church intervened at intervals and many pronouncements were made banning all unchristian like activities at wakes. In 1927, the Synod of Maynooth “forbade absolutely”, all such activities and any unseemly practices were a corpse was present.

Fears and obscure customs were treated with a marked reverence at many wakes. In south Donegal and many parts of Co. Derry the windows and doors were opened when the sick person entered their final hours. This was to allow the soul of the dying person free and unhindered passage to leave the body. Candles burning in a wake house were watched with trepidation. It the wax formed a distinctive pattern, it was known as “the silent shroud” and further death would visit the area again very soon. A generation ago, cats were rigidly excluded from the room were the corpse lay. It was genuinely believed that they had the ability to steal the soul of the deceased person.

The peculiarities of the time were not confined solely to the wake house. Funeral processions on their way to the graveyard, stopped at any crossroads, these representing the cross of Christ, and prayers were said. One of the worst fates that could befall a family, according to beliefs of not too distant past, was to have a relative the last one to be interred in a cemetery. Tradition had it that the last person buried in a graveyard had to “wait” on all the other occupants, bringing them water at specific times.

One of most sombre of exercises associated with wakes in the past was the keening, or lamenting of the dead. This was invariably, though not exclusively, carried out by women, and only then when the deceased had been formally laid out. This is explained in folk belief that the Devil’s dogs lay in wait for passing souls, and might be roused from their sleep by the premature keening of the relatives. Once the body was laid out for the wake, the danger had passed. Keening was a loud wailing that expressed the grief of the family and was soul wrenching in its intensity. The more the deceased was held in esteem, the greater the volume of the keening.

The old ways have now yielded to the new, and a solemn dignity has replaced the excesses of times long gone. It is, nonetheless, an entirely fascinating experience to look back at the customs and beliefs that were held in such esteem by generations past and which may seem so strange to our modern concept of behaviour and decorum.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Gill & Mac Millan for access to some material in the compilation of this article.

Courtesy of the Derry Journal
By Laurence Moore
December 2004