The Irish-American community has clung to many traditions from Ireland, and Ireland watches American television shows and wears American brands. Each has influenced the other in so many ways – but there is one inevitable part of life where the two countries have a complete disconnect. That’s death. American culture is relatively quiet about death and mourning, and graves are marked with low key markers, often with markers that sit flat on the ground. Ireland could not be more different.
In Ireland, obituaries are part of the local news regardless of how expected and ordinary the death was. Death is not hidden away like an embarrassment. It is openly acknowledged as a normal and natural inevitability. People might be very tight lipped about the will, but the actual death is a time for a community to come together.
Waking the Dead
Traditional wakes where people sit up with the deceased all night are rare now, but the modern version is only slightly different. It can be held at the deceased’s home, a hospice or a funeral home. The deceased lies in repose, usually in an open casket. The immediate family stands or sits in a receiving line, and the mourners file past the coffin then express their condolences to the immediate family. The mourners normally include extended family, neighbors and former neighbors, friends, former co-workers and teammates. Many of them will kiss the deceased in the coffin. Bringing children is completely acceptable but not required. It’s probably the one aspect of parenting that doesn’t get judged harshly by everyone.
If the removal is from the deceased’s home, there will be tea, sandwiches and biscuits served. At a hospice or funeral home, there will be the same milling around and socializing, offering condolences and sharing memories. It is not offensive to share a funny story about the deceased or to laugh at one. You are not obliged to stay at a removal until the very end, but do make sure to greet the immediate family. Occasionally, a funeral notice will say ‘house private’, which means only the immediate family will be at the removal. People are not invited to funerals; they are expected to simply turn up. It is normal to attend the removal or funeral of a friend’s parent or sibling to show support and respect. The trick is to know where to find the details, which will vary depending on the area and the religion of the deceased.
And graves? Those flat stones in the US are a mystery to the Irish. Graves here are works of art; beautifully carved Celtic crosses are often kept decorated with flowers and statues. Some of Ireland’s most famous attractions are graves. Newgrange and the other neolithic sites that are designed to be illuminated at the solstice are passage graves. The dolmens, the famous of which is Poulnabrone in the Burren in County Clare, are graves. Even Glasnevin Cemetery (aka Prospect Park Cemetery) in Dublin is popular with tourists because it is home to the graves of so many famous patriots.