The Irish wake must not die

The Irish wake must not die Author Kevin Toolis Photo : Keith Heneghan
Ireland’s wake culture is necessary for establishing a healthy relationship with death, hears Jason Osborne

The pandemic brought the Catholic tradition of memento mori (‘Remember your death’) back to the forefront of the public’s mind, a virus which proved deadly for many intruding upon the removed safety of our daily lives. Key to combatting the potentially corrosive effects of improperly handled grief upon our lives is the ‘socialisation of death’, which was also curtailed to some degree by the pandemic.

Author of My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die and Nine Rules to Conquer Death, Kevin Toolis told The Irish Catholic about the irreplaceability of wake culture, and its age-old origins.

“The wake is a really old universal rite within virtually all human cultures, and in some shape or form. Obviously, we’re united in birth and we’re united in death, and so funerial rites of some kind exist in every human culture and there’s certain commonalities which go back a long way, and you can at least trace the Irish wake back to the Middle East,” Mr Toolis tells this newspaper.

Traces of recognisable wake-culture are visible in such timeless works as the Iliad by Homer, Mr Toolis says, and this speaks to its necessity.

“Homer wrote the Illiad in roundabout 750BC. The end of the Iliad, it actually ends with Hector’s wake, and there’s lots of content in that which would be in the final pages of the Iliad, which would be absolutely explicable to any Irish wake-goer today,” Mr Toolis explains.


“There’s the gathering round the body. He talks about the minstrels of the dirge who are keening women. There’s even funeral games which, when I was a kid I played a ‘wake game’, which were games of a certain dodginess where you celebrate life in the presence of the corpse.”

Usually games with a “subversive tinge” to them, there’s a certain defiance about the place wakes have occupied in human cultures throughout the centuries.

“But in this tradition of the wake, it goes back to the Persians, it goes back to the Babylonians. The last verse of the Iliad…says ‘thus held they the wake and funeral for Hector, tamer of horses’,” Mr Toolis says, continuing, “It’s almost like what Homer is saying in the Iliad is, Hector’s been killed by Achilles, soon the city will fall, it’s a catastrophe, but the Trojans still take time out in order to give Hector a decent wake and funerial rite, and to put his soul to rest.”


Such is the importance with which some ancient cultures regarded ‘socialising death’ as Mr Toolis puts it. However, as noted, these traditions are not relegated to the pages of history, but continue to accompany us today in Ireland.

“Obviously we have an awful lot of religious iconography and religious expression around wakes.

“The most important purpose of an Irish wake really is the socialisation of death. That takes place in a number of different forms and for many of the different participants. The most important aspect I think of an Irish wake is the public acknowledgement of death. So it’s the public acknowledgement that you have lost somebody who was dear to you, who was close to you – your father, your wife, your child, whoever – in every circumstance, and obviously people die in lots of different ways.

“As a community of mortals, we are coming together to acknowledge the loss of another mortal. An event of significance, we’re respecting the dead and respecting ourselves, really.

“No man is an island entire unto himself. The death of any man diminishes me, I am connected, and that’s the most important thing. Which, it must be said, in the Anglosaxon world, in America and England, that relationship, that social connection with death, has almost entirely broken down. Death has become very abstract, quite traumatic, very private, privileged, people don’t go to funerals, they don’t ever see dead bodies. The underlying thing is the socialisation of death.”

Death has been removed from the day-to-day experience of most people, and with it the chances for a healthy relationship with it. Mr Toolis is adamant about the importance of the wake being not just for the dead, but for the living. Being “united in birth and united in death”, a culture that doesn’t acknowledge such a seminal human experience is sure to become lopsided.


“It’s not really just about the dead person. The dead person takes part in a kind of ongoing ritual, social awareness, social education between the living and the dead. So what’s important, really, is that children should go to wakes, because what we’re actually saying is people die, it’s sad, but life goes on, it’s not the end of the world. One of the metaphors I use in my book: you wouldn’t say to your child, ‘Hop in the BMW, drive down to the motorway, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it’, you know?

“You take them on practice drives, driving lessons, there’s somebody there supervising them, showing them how to work the car, the gearstick, the indicators, etc. But of course, wakes are a bit like that for mortality. This is what happens when people die, it’s sad as I say, but life goes on, we gather together, etc.”

Induction into the elements of the human experience is essential – births, marriages, death – and yet, Mr Toolis identifies that as a culture, we’ve allowed death to be “shunted off” out of homes and into hospitals, care homes and hospices. While people undoubtedly receive excellent care in each, there’s no doubt it’s a far cry from the social process of dying in the home, surrounded by family and possibly friends from the surrounding locale.

“So you have that level of, it’s a socialisation process – you’re teaching the next generation. But also for the current generation, you’re also saying to the bereaved, you know, it’s important. This is an important thing. It’s not insignificant, it’s changed your life, and I’m here.

“Also, in psychological terms, you’re allowing people to give expression to public grief. In the older forms of the wake was ‘keening’. Women keened together, there was a catharsis of emotion, and that is very therapeutically useful for human beings.”

The effects of not properly incorporating that grief can be damaging to both the individual suffering, and to the community, Mr Toolis says. A large part of wake culture is about “creating a space” for grieving to occur healthily.

“That is so much more emotionally and psychologically healthy than people being trapped, imprisoned in their own grief and not having any public expression. So at the wake, and at the funeral, in front of all these people, you’re allowed to have a public expression of grief. You’re allowed to cry, you’re allowed to cry in public, you’re allowed to be upset and give expression to some of the most powerful emotions that you ever experience in your life,” Mr Toolis says.

“Again, everyone says by being there, by not freaking out and running away, you are enabling people, actually, to get through their grief in a far more psychologically healthy way than by just pretending death hasn’t happened.”

The pandemic was widely understood as having struck a blow against the grieving process – funerals and wakes limited to a mere six people for much of the past year and a half. However, Mr Toolis focused on the adaptations he saw take place in Irish society on that front, and was impressed by what he saw.


“Well people do adapt, and obviously you did have, I thought it was a very fantastic Irish response – the guard of honour. You know, the people lined up, socially distanced, along the road, and again, obviously, that’s not quite the same as shaking your hand, but again, it was a way of expressing to the bereaved that they weren’t on their own.

“That their community was acknowledging this, and that there would still be verbal exchanges or people may not have called up to the house but they could have phoned to the house, so although it’s not the same, it wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been – it wasn’t so complete a catastrophe. As long as we shape our responses,” he says.

He was glad to see this adaptation to the times in which we live, as there can be many abnormal side-effects to improperly integrated grief, many of which could have come about in Ireland had people not made an effort to accompany those who were grieving.

“One of the great problems about grief is, and this might relate to the pandemic in a sense, the absence of physical interchange. One of the problems people have about grief is a year of magical thinking where often after the funeral, they expect the dead person to come back, and it’s just a very common psychological response.

“One even more common one is that you’re visited in your dreams by the dead person, but another one is this odd, weird lapse where you sort of think, ‘Well, I can’t chuck out the shoes in the wardrobe because they might need them’. Or it manifests itself with them saying we can’t move house because how will they know where to come back to? How will they find us?-”

Psychological reactions

These are very common psychological reactions, Mr Toolis explains, “particularly with spousal deaths”.

“Because if you’ve lived with someone for 30 years, your whole life, there’s maybe that hunger and maybe that wanting, and you fall into an expectation of where are they now? Or you forget that they’re dead. You think they’re going to come back, or you look out the window – I talked to a widow about this – she looked out the window and the grass is growing long, and she says, ‘Oh, I must get Brian to cut the grass’. Except he’s not going to cut the grass because he’s lying under it. It’s very easy to slip into that ‘year of magical thinking’,” he says.

Such is the importance of socialising death. However, this process is under threat in Ireland by, what Mr Toolis refers to as, the invasion of the “western death machine”.

“I think one of the problems really which Ireland faces in a sense is, you might call it, the invasion of the ‘western death machine’. I write about this in My Father’s Wake a lot, and in Nine Rules to Conquer Death. Over the last 200 years in America and in the UK, death has begun to become diminished as a social experience.

“In a weird way, death has become very privatised, so the sick and dying are, sort of, shunted off into hospitals, usually. Out of the sight of the living. Then, this has grown up over the last two, three generations, this absence of contact between the dead and the living. People don’t see their dead relatives. They don’t ever see them.-”


“It’s incredibly common for English people in their 80s to have never seen a dead body in their life. They’ve never ever seen the corpse, they’ve never gone to a wake, they’ve never, ever seen one, not even one of their closest relatives. The most they might see is possibly their granddad for five minutes. So one or two, or none. That’s a marker of the diminishment of social death.

“Now, that has crept in a little bit in Ireland, although I’d say that Ireland has still got quite a healthy death culture, certainly in comparison with the English model. But I know through my children’s Dublin friends that the Irish wake is completely alien and they just wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. Sometimes there’s funeral homes, you don’t have wakes. You can have the weird thing about private flowers only, family members only, that death can be ‘civilised’ away as it often is in England. There’s a possibility that Ireland could sort of adapt by default to some of those models. It creeps in in a, sort of, insidious way, but can be quite profound.”

A simple example of this process, Mr Toolis says, which is experienced by many every day, is the fact that it takes so long to be buried or cremated in England, disrupting the grieving process immensely.

“That has a terrible, profound fracture in the whole grieving process, because you can’t go and visit your auntie who lost her husband for six weeks. You can’t have a wake for six weeks. So everything gets fractured because death has become chopped up and bureaucratised and diminished of social significance. Those are very dangerous precedents. Something that Ireland and Irish Catholics should definitely seek to avoid. We should definitely not adopt the English model of death.

“People might say, ‘Oh that’s how it is, that’s modern’. Often it’s presented as that’s the way that we do these things now, but you say, ‘Hold on, that’s not the way that they did it in Troy, and basically people have been dying roughly the same way as long as there’s been people’. You’ll get an innovation within the death industry that’s often in favour of the death industry, and not necessarily in favour of how people cope with grief and loss as we have coped with grief and loss merely by being human.”

Mr Toolis’ analysis of the contribution wakes have made in Ireland and the dangers they’re facing should encourage us to cling to these rituals and traditions as to a “rope”, as he saw people cling to the Rosary at many wakes himself.