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The Way of the Wake

“Keeping a wake” is not the same as “keeping awake”, though the second can be part of the first. A funeral wake is really a funeral watch. It’s the time before the actual funeral when the family and friends of the departed person gather around the body or coffin. They keep watch and share their memories and stories. Often this takes place the night before the funeral and it can involve staying up right to the following day.

Because wakes can last a long time, it’s common for food and drink to be available. But you don’t have to eat or drink anything, because there are no strict rules at a wake. It’s a more informal and less organized occasion than the funeral itself. There’s no priest or celebrant to take charge and people will come and go as they please. It’s also different from the funeral reception that often takes place after the burial or cremation. Food and drink are also available there, but receptions are the final stage of a funeral, when people get ready to return to their outside lives.

Wakes are the first stage of a funeral, when people get ready to say goodbye to the departed person. Wakes also have much deeper roots in history. At one time, they could last longer than a few hours or overnight: in countries like Ireland and Wales, the friends and relatives would not so much watch over the body as guard it. Were they worried about evil spirits? Did they want to keep wild animals away? Yes, both of those things were no doubt on their minds. The wolves that once roamed Britain had no respect for the dead.

But there was something else to think about: the human enemies of the dead person. In more violent and primitive cultures, one way of insulting an enemy is to deny them burial or mutilate their dead body. Think of the film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), which is set in Mexico. But the title expresses something that must often have happened in Britain too. In those days, wakes were a way of protecting the body, not of simply gathering around it to remember the departed person.

Even today wakes call up these older ideas and associations. They feel like something that goes deep into history, back through all the centuries of Christianity to the days of paganism and perhaps even further, back to prehistory and human evolution. Did our primitive ancestors hold wakes around their dead, guarding them from hyaenas and jackals during the hours of darkness until the sun came up and they could be buried?

When you attend a wake today, it’s easy to believe that they did. It never seems right to have a funeral at night, to bury or cremate someone in the dark. Darkness is the time for the wake, for watching over the body and remembering the person that once inhabited it. By night, it can be easy to believe that the soul or spirit of the departed person is hovering near. A wake can seem like a meeting not just between the living, but also between the living and the dead. When people raise glasses and drink to the memory of the departed, perhaps the spirit smiles to see it or raises a shadowy glass of its own.

Such thoughts come easily at a wake. The funeral that follows is a more practical and earthy event – literally so, if a burial is taking place. Funerals take place by day, when the light is bright, so that the mourners can properly witness the final stage of a life’s journey: the return to earth in a burial or the dissolution by fire at a cremation. When we say goodbye to a departed person, wakes and funerals play different but complementary roles, each strengthening the message of the other and helping the mourners to accept their loss and begin their return to normal life.