The Irish Wake Tradition: Honoring Life and Death

Today, a funeral and its wake are often respectful affairs focused on ceremony and remembering the deceased. They’re hardly the place for a party, and yet the tradition of the Irish wake turns the typical reverent tone in remembrance ceremonies on its head.

Irish wakes feature many of the rituals and prayers you’d associate with a “normal” funeral. But mingling with these more traditional aspects are poetry, food, music, and a lot of alcohol. The idea is to celebrate life as much as to respect death. 

Though they’re not as common nowadays, Irish wakes are still held by people of Irish descent. For instance, Matthew McConaughey’s father insisted on this type of sendoff. He asked for a ceremony that was like a big party where everybody told stories about him – the very essence of an Irish wake.

Perhaps this type of wake sounds ideal for you or your loved one, especially if you believe traditional ceremonies to be too “stuffy.” This exploration of the traditional Irish wake explores how you can honor life and death with a celebration as well as a ceremony.

The Irish Wake Tradition Honoring Life and Death

The History of the Irish Wake

Opinions vary on the origins of Irish wakes.

The origins are unclear. Some believe it likely that various aspects of ceremony and celebration were combined to create a ritual that eventually became the traditional Irish wake. Others point to clear paganistic influences, particularly the practice of “waking the dead” with music and stories.

It’s perhaps in the clash between these paganistic celebrations and the growth of Christianity that we see the true roots of the Irish wake. As the Catholic church grew its influence in Ireland, some celebratory aspects of old funeral services were replaced with somber religious ceremonies. And yet, tradition is not so quickly forgotten, making it likely that the first Irish wakes were attempts to mesh Catholic rites with traditional Celtic influences to retain the uniqueness of the Irish culture.

How Does a Traditional Irish Wake Work?

Traditional Irish wakes differ from their modern variants in several ways, particularly in terms of their length and some of the traditions observed.

For instance, a traditional Irish wake takes place in the home of the deceased or the home of a family member. The casket remains open, often for several days, to give all in the community a chance to visit the family so they can provide comfort and pay their respects.

Then, there’s the celebration aspect.

In the past, Irish wakes involved serving food and drinks, especially alcohol, over several days. Visitors would pay their respects, join in song, and share stories of the departed with each other, celebrating their life in the process. That tradition survives in modern Irish wakes, though in cut-down form. Often, a modern wake involves reserving a venue for food and drinks, with only close family and friends invited to attend.

Finally, there are two interesting rites, both designed to honor the deceased, that have fallen out of favor in modern Irish wakes.

The first of these is “keening” – wailing in anguish and grief as a mark of respect for the departed. Interestingly, this practice was so crucial to traditional Irish wakes that it wasn’t uncommon for families to hire professional keeners to ensure the correct amount of respect was shown. It’s a practice that’s rare today, and it is somewhat unique to Irish culture, with very few analogs in other parts of the world.

Second, a traditional Irish wake often includes a nighttime vigil that holds as practical a purpose as it does a respectful one. Yes, this vigil honors the dead. But in the days before modern medicine, it also allowed families to confirm the deceased was actually dead rather than suffering from an ailment from which they could recover. The vigil is one of the more obvious signs of catholic influence in Irish funeral rites, and modern Irish wakes often only include a vigil if the deceased is a devout Catholic.

The Songs and Games of Irish Wakes

Though it’s clear that stories, drinking, and general merriment are crucial parts of an Irish wake, some may not realize how far the merriment aspect goes. It wasn’t uncommon for games to be played during these funerals, such as “The Priest of the Parish.” A group game designed for large numbers of people that involve accusing other players of stealing the priest’s hat.

Folk songs are also common and often intermingled with Catholic songs. “My Lagan Love” and “Carrickfergus” will often play, with singalongs encouraged as a sign of respect to the dead.

The Traditional Irish Wake – A Unique Way to Celebrate the Dead

It’s always interesting to see the rituals people created to mourn, remember, and celebrate the deceased, and the Irish culture delivers one of the most unique events with the wake. Songs, merriment, and drinking mix with reverence and ceremony, creating a funeral, unlike many others. If you’d wish to create this type of wake for a loved one, or at least incorporate elements of it into a ceremony, Hollywood Forever enables the flexibility for you to honor the deceased in whatever way you see fit.


or talk to a Family Service Counselor — available 24/7:

(323) 469-1181

or Click Here to view our Plans and Pricing

error: Alert: Content selection is disabled!!