Waking the Dead
Deal on, deal on, my merry men all,
Deal on your cakes and your wine;
For whatever is dealt at her funeral today
Shall be dealt to-morrow at mine.
Maria Edgeworth, 1810
When many people
think of a wake, they envision the typical Irish wake. Friends and relatives of the deceased gathered to have a big hurrah to send their loved one(s) off to their final reward. Drinking, eating, telling stories. But this is not the way the tradition originally began. Over the centuries, the wake has gone from a somber vigil over the dead to a boisterous event condemned by local officials and scorned by the church.
Earlier wakes were a more practical affair. Ancient Greeks waited three days between death and burial, observing the dead to make sure they had actually transpired and to protect them from harm, just in case. Ancient Hebrews would also hold a vigil over the body to avoid premature burial and to investigate for signs of foul play. Early Christians continued the practice and allowed relatives and intimates to come and pray for the body and scrutinize it for signs of life.
Over time, this practice evolved to include more lively activities as guards attempted to enliven the tedious task by rousing the ghost. This often included practical jokes on superstitious relatives of the deceased and black magic rituals to raise the dead. This became so common that the Council of York forbade any attempts to raise the dead in 1376 and one guild would only allow members to stand watch if the agreed to abstain from raising apparitions, and from indecent games.
In some cases, the corpse would play a part in the practical jokes. After the limbs of an arthritic corpse were tied down to straighten them, a prankster would cut the ropes to make the body move or sit up. Irish wakes and their Scottish equivalent, the lykewake, were the most notorious for their rowdiness. Whiskey, wine and porter flowed freely and food was plentiful. In 1896, the Records of Inverness and Dingwall Presbytery wrote of lykewakes, ƒthey were more boisterous than weddings, the chamber of the dead being filled night after night with jest, song and story, music of the fiddle and the pipe, and the shout and clatter of the Highland reel. The typical wake included storytelling; the singing of love, patriotic or religious songs; music and dancing (often including the deceased for a reel or two!); and card playing, with the deceased often dealt into the game or being used as the card table. British, Germany and Scandinavian wakes often became even bawdier with lewd games, courtship and lovemaking taking place in the hall.
Attempts were made to decrease the debauchery of the wakes. In one instance, a Scottish schoolteacher removed the corpse and had an accomplice hide under the sheet. He was supposed to rise up and scare the partygoers, but instead he himself passed away! This so frightened the assembled that the merrymaking at lykewakes ceased for a period. In 906 AD Regino, the abbot of Lorraine, France ordered his monks that diabolical songs be not sung at night hours over the bodies of the deadƒ let no one there presume to sing diabolical songs nor make jest and perform dances which pagans have invented by the Devils teaching. The custom of wake soon diminished in France as his word spread.
As immigrants found homes in Colonial America, the tradition of the wake found its way here, as well. Often it was the only time, aside from weddings, when citizens were allowed to publicly drink alcohol. In 19th century America, the body was displayed in the home and viewing the remains replaced the custom of visiting before and during death. True to form, the Irish immigrants brought their rowdy practices to the Colonies. At one particular wake in the late 19th century, two brothers died in a railroad accident a passenger train collided with their handcar. One of the brothers was decapitated, but revelers placed his severed head on high stool with his pipe in his mouth so he could watch the whole affair. Often in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania, the coffin had to be checked before burial to make certain the deceased was inside. Revelers would often remove the deceased in order to sleep off their inebriation in the comfort of the casket instead of on the hard floor.
The practice of waking the dead is not restricted to European society. In South America, the Jivaro Indians would prop up the fully dressed body of the deceased and play dice for his possessions. Food and drink were plentiful during these festivities. The Tana Toradja tribe of Sulawesi held a mourning ritual that would last for months or years, during which the corpse remained in its home. His wife would continue to care for him and provide him food. A festival would be held, with drinking and games. Finally, when the body was naturally mummified, it would be buried. The Isneg and Apayo tribes of the Philippines went even further by leaving the body to rot during their festivities. During this time, the living spouse is required, by tribal custom, to continue sleeping in the same bed as their dead mate. Once the body had reached an advanced state of decomposition it would be buried. As a result of this practice the tribes have developed a strong stomach in order to handle the constant stench. The Ilongo tribe of the Philippines is less extreme, only requiring that no one bath during the wake.
Over time, the wake has evolved into the contemporary viewing where the body is placed on display for respects to be paid to the family of the deceased. Food is still provided in most viewing, but the overall mood has become one of somber respect. Some vestiges of the old-fashioned wake still remain. In one case, B.T. Collins, a state legislator for California arranged to have a wake held in a ballroom in Sacramento. It included three bars, a seven-piece band and a buffet with a massive ice sculpture. It was attended by nearly 3,000 partygoers who saw him out in style. Statistically, only 22% of Anglo-Saxon Americans want a wake held for them, and only one-fourth of them want it in their homes. Some psychologists defend the value of the wake to the bereaved. Bertram S. Puckle maintained that a delay between death and burial conditioned friends and relatives to the changed condition of the deceased and allowed them to observe the corpse to quell hopes that it might return to consciousness. Still, there are those who oppose the wake as a gruesome and needless activity. Perhaps the future will see a return of the traditional Irish wake or Scottish lykewake, but only when we can come to terms with our societal stigma on death. In the meantime...
Why do cemeteries all have walls?
Its silly beyond a doubt;
The people outside dont want to get in
And the people inside cant get out!