The Rituals of the Celtic Wake || By Lisa Martinez, Affordable Counseling Intern for People House, ERYT 200-RYT 500
Continuing my series of posts about the diverse rituals, practices and cultural concepts which support the human grieving process, this month we explore the rituals of the Celtic wake.
Around St Patrick’s Day in the late 90s, I remember my two little sons, about 3 and 4 years old at the time, looking up at me with their big eyes as I told them the story of St. Patrick.
I told them about St. Patrick being captured from 5 th century Britain by Irish raiders and serving as a slave in Ireland for several years. Eventually escaping, he traveled hundreds of miles and made his way back to Britain. According to the story, he felt called by God to train as a priest and, after 15 years of training, felt called to go back to Ireland to minister to the Irish people. His story has been valued in Irish history and in the United States, especially on March 17.
According to the legend, St Patrick died on March 17, in the year 461, which is why we celebrate his death on that day. Interestingly, most who celebrate his death on St Patrick’s Day enjoy drinking and socializing, which is akin to Irish funerary wakes. These wakes are rooted in deep Celtic tradition in Ireland with similar traditions among the Celts in Scotland.
Both Ireland and Scotland share common Celtic ancestry and languages rooted in the Goidelic family of languages. Although the ancient Celts believed the best death was one earned in combat or warfare, they also believed in a form of reincarnation and a Cauldron of Rebirth which could revive the dead from another plane of existence. Bodies were washed and wrapped in a burial cloth (later called “Winding Sheets”), often burned and buried in stone chambers or simply covered with stone and/or earth.
In later periods, the funerary rituals of the Celtic traditions of both Ireland and Scotland were assimilated by the Christian church.
Until the 19th century, with the development of modern cities and deathcare, an Irish wake began with women washing and dressing the deceased and placing the body on a large table in the main room of the house with candles placed around it. Wrapped in a shroud, the body would be tied and decorated with ribbon or flowers. During the often week-long wake, the body would never be left alone. Family, friends and neighbors would visit, and food, drink, music, stories and dancing were liberally shared. Often, each male visitor was expected to take a puff of tobacco from a pipe that was left near, or sometimes on the body.
Scottish funerary rites shared similarities with the Irish wake with the body being washed, dressed and wrapped in Winding Sheets. The Winding Sheets assured the living that the deceased was able to find rest, without which the spirits of the dead would restlessly wander. The deceased was placed on a board in the home while others stayed with the body in a vigil known as a “sitting” before dusk and a “lykewake” after dark, from the words “lyke” meaning “corpse” and “wake” meaning “watch”. All who attended the celebrations during the vigil were expected to touch the corpse with their hand, which was said to communicate kindness and love to the departed and prevent the bereaved from unwanted dreams of the deceased. Along with the wake and funeral processions, the Irish and Scottish shared many other grief rituals such as stopping clocks at the time of the death, covering mirrors to prevent the soul of the dead from entering other realms, opening windows to allow for the soul to depart, “keening” or loud wailing of professional mourners, and even telling the local bees at various beehives of the death so the world beyond would know of the death.
These rites speak to me not only because I share an ethnic and genetic heritage with these groups but also because of the purposeful connection with the body of the deceased.
In an ethnographic study of the mortuary rituals of 57 cultures around the world, anthropologists found that not only do many cultures worldwide share death rituals involving intimate contact with the body of the deceased, but that this intimate contact facilitates the processing of loss of the relationship and provides the bereaved with the opportunity to create meaning. The researchers postulate that because bereaved individuals in modern industrialized cultures like the United States rarely participate in the preparation of and/or connecting with the corpse, the suffering of the bereaved is exacerbated.
In their rituals of connecting with the body of the deceased, these Celtic cultures recognized the reality of death shared by all human beings. By contrast, in the United States death and the process following death has become so medicalized that death is often viewed as a failure, rather than as an expected stage of life. The bereaved are left not only with facing an irreplaceable loss but also being less able to process their psychosocial reactions to their own mortality.
The grieving process is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting and requires immense social support. While viewing or connecting with the body of a deceased loved one may not be possible or be too overwhelming a task for many grievers in the United States, perhaps increasing awareness about the necessity to connect with the deceased in some tangible way may help reduce the immense burden borne by the bereaved. Perhaps holding a traditional Celtic wake in a way that feels appropriate to the deceased’s family and friends may help the grieving find a public expression of their grief and feel less alone in it.
A Scottish Gaelic saying to help the bereaved:
Ta se anois a staid na firinne, agus sinn-ne air staid na brèige.
He is now in the state of truth, and we are in the state of untruth.
An Irish Gaelic saying:
Níl cara ag cumha ach cuimhne.
No friend for sorrow but memory.
White, C., Marin, M., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2017). Not just dead meat: An evolutionary account of corpse treatment in mortuary rituals. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 17(1–2), 146–168. https://doi-org.ezproxy.messiah.edu/10.1163/15685373-12342196
About the Author: As a mother of six sons, Lisa’s greatest joy in life is her family. Tragically, however, in 2002, she and her husband, Aaron, lost their fourth son Benjamin in an unexpected accident. From then on, Lisa experienced a long, painful struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and deep grief. She was introduced to yoga as a daily practice to help her rest and reset her mind. After over 18 years of her personal growth as a student and a teacher of yoga, she continues to explore the relationship between spirituality, somatics and mental health. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Messiah University and is privileged to work with People House as an Affordable Counseling Intern. Upon licensure, she intends to combine her in-depth knowledge of spiritual practices, yoga, and meditation with clinical counseling techniques to offer holistic therapy to clients, focusing on grief, trauma and bereavement issues for parents.