The history of a “wake”
There are customs in our lives that we do not give much thought to where it originated from as they are second nature to us. No, I am not talking about a family traditions, secret recipes, or that favorite place that you always meet your friends. I am thinking about those things we do in society ..…that we don’t really think about how it even started in the first place. Some examples that come to mind are shaking someone’s hand (obviously pre-covid), or blowing out birthday candles (again pre-covid). With Halloween around the corner, it usually gets me thinking more about funerals, death, and all things “spooky”….lately I have been curious around the concept and history of funeral visitations, also known as a wake or visitation. Why do we do this? Where did this concept come from?
The history of this process has a rather surprising, albeit practical story for the times:
Long ago, when there was a death in the family there would be a gathering held where the remaining family members would literally watch over the body to ensure that the person is in fact deceased. This custom of waiting became an opportunity to gather their loved ones to grieve and celebrate the life of the deceased. This of course allowed for the sharing of stories, sharing food, enjoying music, and even some drinking. This all happened while no one left the body of the deceased’s alone, someone would always sit with the body to ensure that they were met with a loved one in case they did actually “wake”.
All these festivities would happen in a room separate from where the deceased was resting, with an assigned person staying with the body at all times. If that assigned person needed to leave, then someone else would take their shift. This would also happen at night even after everyone left for the evening and would carry on until the funeral service was held.
During the course of the next few days until the funeral service, some additional “traditions” also took place, and depending on your religion or geographical location you might also see some the following:
• Clocks in the house would be stopped at the time of death
• Mirrors would be turned around or covered
• Lighting of candles
• Rosary would be said at midnight before visitors left for the evening
• Sometimes professional mourners were hired to display grief for the deceased.
• Games would be played while everyone waited for the deceased to “wake”
• Sit the deceased in their finest clothes and “give them a smoke”
• Jazz parties/processions
• Building and creating fantasy coffins (i.e. shaped like cars, chili peppers or even fish)
• Funeral Strippers
• Host dances
• Story Telling
There are many ways in which we can celebrate the life of a dearly departed loved one, as you can see from this post. The next time you are able to attend either a visitation, funeral, celebration of life, or anything else that honors the deceased, take some time to find out the history of that tradition. The story behind the celebration just might surprise you!