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Originating at the end of the 19th century, when a nation-wide immigration to the United States began (as it became popular for those about to leave the country to say farewell in as maudlin a manner as possible), the so-called "Irish Wake" is often viewed as disrespectful or profane by outside cultures. The most important thing for these observers to remember is this: Those who gather to mourn the deceased seek to celebrate the life, not the death. Although the tone of the wake can vary greatly from case to case (the tragic passing of a youth versus the timely end of an elderly woman's suffering), the theme will always be one of simple regret combined with gaiety.

The wake usually lasted from the time of death until the family left with the body for the funeral service in the nearest Roman Catholic or Protestant house of worship. The women of the neighborhood would first prepare the body, in a process known as "laying out the dead". The corpse was bathed, dressed in some sort of white garment (only the rich could afford shrouds), and laid upon some flat surface in the house, usually their bed or the dining room table. After the laying out, the keening would begin. This high-pitched wail could conceivably be credited with beginning the legend of the banshee, but was thought to scare away any evil spirits and if begun before all the rituals of laying out, would be ineffective. An account written by an unknown New Yorker, dated 1890 recounts "At midnight, I heard that wild wail rolling upon the air, and I was reminded of that ancient cry at midnight in the land of Egypt, when Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants, and all the Egyptians, and there was not a house where there was not one dead. There stood two rows of women, with their left hands around each others waists, and their right beating upon their lips, making, as they shouted, a most horrible noise. Most of the women had never known the deceased until they saw her in her dying agonies, and yet the tears rolled down their cheeks in torrents. I succeeded at last, much to my joy, in breaking up this strange wild scene of frantic woe."

The Catholics chose to place a rosary in the hands of the body, and it was expected that each mourner would say a decade or two in memory. The next bit should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the Celts. Whiskey and stouts poured freely as the mourners proceeded, in traditional Irish fashion, to get maudlin drunk as quickly as possible. Anyone who wishes may make a toast to the deceased, sharing memories of times together. The toasts can be as short as "May you be in Heaven an hour before the Devil knows you're dead", or they may stretch on for hours on end.

To end the ceremony, it was considered proper for someone close to the departed to sing the wake's lament, a song appropriate for the occasion and the person being celebrated. I have it on good authority that anyone who tries to perpetrate Danny Boy will be the next recipient of an Irish Wake.


http://www.users.drew.edu/~kknaack/irish.html and
http://irishculture.about.com/culture/irishculture/library/blwake.htm

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