The Irish Wake

The Irish Wake is perhaps one of the best known funeral traditions in the world.

Many countries have now adopted the term “Wake” and although it is widely associated as an Irish tradition each country has its own version and rituals. In Australia the wake usually begins after the funeral whereas as you will discover the Irish wake begins immediately after death.

As with many rituals and traditions the origin of the “Irish Wake” is generally unknown. Often thought to have been heavily influenced by element of ritual paganism, it was very much frowned on by the Church.

One claim thought to be folklore, was that this Irish tradition came about because of lead poisoning in pewter tankards.  With high levels of lead in pewter mugs, many of the drinkers who used them would fall into a ‘cationic state’ resembling death. The sufferer could regain consciousness after many hours or even days, hence the term “three-day Wake.”

But, wherever these rituals and traditions originated many have now been carried on through the passage of time and are practiced in many countries throughout the world.

adrian-moran-74912-unsplash.jpg

Traditionally, the local priest would be called to the family home to give the last rites. The priest would come at all hours of the day or night for prayers and the sprinkle holy water over the body.

Following the death and with the body still in the family home, the house needed to be prepared. A black-edged envelope would be attached to the front door to let neighbours and friends know of the death. A room in the house was set aside for the body and window would be opened to allow the spirit to move out and onto its eternal journey.  Nobody was to block the window, as this would have bought misfortune to whoever has blocked the spirit’s path to eternal life. The mirror would be either covered in a white sheet or a linen cloth or turned to face the wall. This is thought to hide the physical body from the dead body. After about three hours the curtains are drawn and the window shut, so that the spirit does not return.

I had often heard on my travels of the bodies being prepared and sometimes embalmed by the funeral director in the house on a door removed from its hinges, however I cannot confirm the validity of this claim.  Traditionally the body would have been washed with holy water by a women known as a ‘handy woman’.

It is about this time the undertaker was called, usually providing a modest inexpensive coffin. Candles were placed around the coffin, and remained lit until the body is later  moved to the church.

Once the family had completed their prayers in the house, friends would call in to pay their respects and offer their condolences. Then all the merriment would begin. Refreshments including Tea, Sandwiches, cakes, buns, beer and poteen (an illicit Irish distilled beverage made from potatoes) would be offered. it wouldn’t take long before tales would be told about the dead person, and the naughtier (and more alcohol consumed), the more laughter ensued. Music also played an important part in the tradition.

This would go on all that night, and the next day the body would be taken to the church for prayers. No doubt attended by some that had already experienced their own “3 day wake” On the third day after death would be the funeral mass.

Following the catholic funeral mass the funeral party would then follow the coffin out of the church, and it would be placed into the hearse and the family and friends would walk behind to the cemetery for a graveside service.

After the burial, as is so customary now and then, mourners would return to the local pub or family home, where the merriments would continue.

In Ireland today, many of these old traditions have gone as the modern traditional funeral director performs the functions a family once did. So whilst the old tradition and ritual may be disappearing one thing has not and that is the joining of family, friends and relatives in “Celebrating a Life” in a fitting and meaningful way.

In Australia the “Aussie Wake” is alive and well. For many the traditional values and meaning of the church (relative to funerals) is being replaced by new traditions, steeped in the old traditions of the Irish wake, Many families are now choosing to have services or events in places like bowls, golf, football or yacht clubs, where joviality and humour can often form a significant part of the event. Sometime the body is present and sometimes not. Usually the merriment continues long into the night around the bar, where tall stories become just a little bit taller.

Although time has passed and we live continents away from Ireland, many of the old customs have morphed into our “Aussie Wake” and found new meaning and values in Australia life.

The “Wake” is still as relevant as it ever has been.

Robert Nelson is a fifth generation funeral director who has studied and travelled extensively throughout the world. His company Robert Nelson Funerals is based in Melbourne Australia and specialises in meaningful funerals

 

 

Day of The Dead

 

Can you imagine the Australian government providing a public holiday to celebrate the dead, sound a bit far fetched? Well, not in Mexico. In the James Bond movie “Spectre”, the opening scene starts with a Day of the Dead Street parade in Mexico City. Possibly one of the most remarkable facts of this scene is that no such procession had ever taken place in the city before this film scene. Whilst the day of the Dead festivities were common place the parade was not. However, from October 2016 the street parade became an annual feature of Mexico City Life. Yet, whilst the street parade is relatively new, Day of The Dead is not.

“Dia de los Muertos”, (Day of the Dead) coincides with Allhallowstide, encompassing the Western Christian observance of all Saints Eve (Halloween). Celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd it encompasses All Saints and All Souls Day.  This multi day holiday focusing on the gathering of family and friends to pray for and remember the dead and help support their spiritual journey. Revellers believe the the spirits of the dead return to take part in the festivities alongside the living. despite Day of the Dead falling on Halloween, it is not Halloween and its not supposed to scare anyone. Those celebrating truly believe that death is something that should be celebrated in a lively way and should not be something to be afraid of.

shutterstock_529191466
Day of The Dead bread

Perhaps, the most striking features of the day of the dead festivals are the vibrant colours, haunting makeup, images of  of skeletons and skulls, food, dance, parties and carnival atmosphere.  The brightly painted skills are understood to be a remnant of an ancient Aztec tradition. The skulls were used during rituals to symbolise death and rebirth.

In Melbourne a number of Mexican restaurants celebrate and special food is often on offer for this unique festivity.

child on Halloween

Whilst in Australia Halloween has grown, in the United States Halloween is big business. According to the National Retail Federation, it is estimated that Americans spent over $6 billion dollars on candy , costumes and decor during the 2013 season. It is easy to be carried away with the commercialism and fun surrounding Halloween, yet it is a significant time in the churches liturgical year, dedicated to remembering the dead and all the faithful departed.

This time of year is not just restricted to the celebration of the dead by christians.

shutterstock_209001634
Obon Lanterns, Japan

The “Bon” or Obon, a traditional Japanese festival (held around 15th August) is often referred to as “The Japanese day of the dead” commemorates lost ancestors whose spirits are believed to come back  to visit relatives during the festival. Many People return home during he festival  to spend time around family and friends. In Kyoto giant bonfires surrounding the hills are spectacularly lit to publicly mark the end of Obon.

shutterstock_709368340
Food offering at The Ghost Festival

Somewhat similar to the “Bon” or Obon festival, The Ghost Festival is celebrated by Chinese, who believe during this time that the gates of hell are opened up to allow the ghosts to roam free on earth where they can seek food and entertainment. Balanced with fear and festivity , celebrations begin with parades culminating in lanterns being released onto the water. Similarly as with other death festivals, food and ritual play a  significant part in these events. Family members may offer prayers to the deceased as well as offerings of food and drink in addition to burning hell money and joss paper. It is believed the joss has some value in the after life. Some burn paper houses, cars and televisions to appease the gods.

In multi cultural Australia we are fortunate that some of these traditions are also celebrated here.  Yet, our own values and the way in which we tread carefully around death are quite reserved and easily symbolised in the colours we choose to wear and associate with death are quite dark and austere.

So what can we learn from these unique festivals? In diversity we often find our own relevance and meaning to ways in which we deal with death and remembrance of our ancestors. Perhaps knowing and understanding of these diverse cultures and festivities allows us to formulate our own views and meaning to death and dying. Whilst many might suggest it would be very politically incorrect to “celebrate the dead” just maybe there is something we can learn.

It is clear in Australian funerals there has been a marked change in what occurs at funerals, once for people to have clapped at a funeral it would have been seen as highly inappropriate, yet today its common and seen as highly appropriate thing to do. There are also many other things that are also changing at these events and maybe thats a story for another time.

So as we move move forward our cultures blend and our views change, I don’t expect we will see any public street parades celebrating death any time soon,  but I just wonder how we will celebrate the dead in the future.

Robert Nelson has listened and worked with clients since 1983 and created ceremonies that are designed around the needs and desires of grieving families. Robert Nelson Funerals, knowledge, experience and understanding makes him the preferred choice for Melbourne families.

For more information on any of these services, please contact Robert Nelson at robert@robertnelsonfunerals.com.au or ph (03) 9532 2111

 

Meaningful Funerals

Cremated remains scattered by fireworks

So what does it mean to have a meaningful funeral?

Put simply, the funeral has to be relevant to you. As with all milestones in life, such as weddings, birthdays, family events, etc, people choose to celebrate these in ways that have meaning and relevance to them. Funerals are no different. Funerals are a celebration of life, where we can reflect on a persons life lived.

Traditionally, funerals were centred around the church and religion, just as they were with weddings. The funerals were often very similar as dictated from the church’s funeral rites.  However, today things have changed. Increasingly more families and mourner’s find little relevance in the traditional funeral service. It has often been heard from some mourners they wonder if indeed they are at the right funeral service as the service bears not reflection on the life of the deceased and subsequently mourners don’t connect with the service.

So how are Australian families making more meaningful funerals and what are the types of things that are being incorporated into a funeral or the events surrounding it.

Over the past decade there has been a increase in the amount off audio visual productions at funerals, wether it be photographic  montages with selected video and relevant music, to photographic or display boards of images of the deceased life. These simple touches bring relevance and meaning to mourners in attendance as the images are something they can relate to and will spur on strong memories of the person they knew and remembered.  Services can be recorded and or live streamed to the internet for people that may not be able to travel to the service.

A few years ago I interviewed and filmed a lovely lady and asked question about her life and growing up. A few years later at her funeral, her images and voice mixed with archival photos gave her the opportunity to talk about her life, in her words,  it was personal and touching.

Todays funeral tributes have gone high tech

Families have traditionally invited people back to their homes after a funeral for refreshments. As homes have got smaller and peoples lives busier,  these functions are now often held elsewhere. Todays progressive cemeteries have high quality function rooms and beautiful catering. Many families are using there facilities or those of their sports clubs for both the funeral, the memorial service and or refreshments. These have great benefits as it places mourners at ease in their more familiar surrounds.

Indeed many families are finding more relevance and meaning at these informal refreshments functions, than they are at the funeral services and subsequently we are seeing increasingly more families choose to have a cremation without any attendance and memorial service held afterwards in their favourite location.

Its not only the funeral service itself that has seen significant change, but the way and manner in which people are choosing to deal with cremated remains. Whilst traditional memorialisation is still popular, families are choosing to say there final farewell in different ways.

Ashes to Ashes, offers a unique yet personal way to commemorate the loss of a loved one by scattering their ashes high in the sky by way of a beautiful and spectacular fireworks display. The brain child of Sydney born pyrotechnic Craig Hull,  Craig believes peoples sadness and grief are replaced by wonderment and celebration as the journey towards closure begins.

Every heard of someone as referred to as a rough diamond? Well now its possible to turn them into a beautiful one, literally. An Australian based company can now turn cremated remains into diamonds. Known as “Cremation Diamonds” the process takes anywhere from 3 -8 months.

Cremation diamonds

Now whilst some of these new ways of remembrance and meaning may not be your cup of tea, the most significant change has been the acceptance of allowing those in mourning to choose to do things that have relevance and meaning to them. Funeral options.

So next time you’re in a position to talk to family about what you want, tell them, they might be surprised!

As for me, I want to go sky high, with my cremated remains scattered over the start line at the yacht club, while my friends watch on and celebrate on the balcony with a cold beer and remember me with love, laughter and life.

Robert Nelson has listened and worked with clients since 1983 and created ceremonies that are designed around the needs and desires of grieving families. Robert Nelson Funerals, knowledge, experience and understanding makes him the preferred choice for Melbourne families.

For more information on any of these services, please contact Robert Nelson at robert@robertnelsonfunerals.com.au or ph (03) 9532 2111