By Kevin Toolis
You never forget your first corpse, do you?
Cold. Silent. Lying there indifferent to the world and all its myriad responsibilities.
Unless, of course, you never get to meet one as is increasingly common in the States where the dead have been banished from our sight.
Instinctively in the United States we now pull the curtains, dim the lights and lower our voices lest the sight of the dead or the dying obtrude into the world of the living. Unless they are medical professionals the vast, vast majority of Americans will never see, never mind touch, a dead body in their entire lives. Or, at most, one or two corpses.
In a world where everyone dies, the dead have been banished, their end even verbally disguised within that ugly euphemism of ‘passing.’
In Ireland in contrast, the living and dead still share a few days in each other’s company in the rite of the Irish Wake.
The Irish still go to funerals in great numbers. An ordinary man or woman can expect 300, a dead priest or a schoolteacher would garner over 500. Mourner after mourner shake the hand of the bereaved.
The sight, the touch, of the dead is an every-other day sort of event – nothing special. After they have died, the dead come home and are laid out in their coffins in their front sitting rooms or back kitchens.
Neighbours, friends, even former enemies, arrive to pray over the corpse, chat, express their sorrow, laugh, reminisce, eat ham and tomato sandwiches, sometimes drink a few beers, and offer their condolences to the bereaved by shaking their hand and saying ‘sorry for your troubles.’
Visiting the dead, viewing a corpse, whether they are ‘reposing’ at their home or in a funeral parlour is still part of an Irish web of social obligation around death and dying centred on the rite of the Irish Wake.
An implicit social recognition that death hurts and the loss matters to the family, the community.
The wake is more than an Irish cultural icon. It is ancient way of dealing with our mortality, a wisdom that we lose at our peril, and one of the oldest rites of humanity dating back long before the fall of Troy in the eighth century BCE.
Waking the dead was still common in all European cultures until 200 years ago but died away as the power of the Western Death Machine grew through hospitals and industrialisation to separate the dying from the living.
For some reason the power of the wake has always remained stronger, more embedded, amongst the Celts and in many other cultures like Latin America.
At the heart of the wake are the oldest teachings of humanity; how to be brave in irreversible sorrow, how to share this mortal life with the dying, the dead, the bereaved; how to face your own death; and how to teach your children too to face their deaths.
When I was seven my mother, on the island of our forbearers in Achill island, Co Mayo, in Ireland took me to my first wake to see the sight of the dead and with her encouragement touch the dead man’s flesh.
I still remember that first visceral ice-cube-in-a-rubber-glove jolt touch of the stone-like corpse. Today most modern parents would be horrified at the thought of taking their own children on a similar death training expedition. But my mother Mary Gallagher was enacting a rite from within the wake drawing on its far older wisdom of taming death in a communal embrace.
My mother’s aim, as unconsciously passed down to her through the island generations, was not to frighten me but to unfrighten me by showing me the very ordinariness of the dead. The old dead man in the box was nothing to be afraid of.
Women, as in most funereal rites across the globe, play a central role in the Irish Wake.
When my own father Sonny died on the island his sisters, daughters and nieces, enacted an another ancient role, like a Greek chorus, that was the focus of our grieving. They wept out loud, cried, keened and expressed our communal sorrow over Sonny’s death. I cried too because their keening was infectious. And why not express tears for the death of your father?
But their keening was also a promise of a future, a fertility rite. A way of defying death. Sonny was just one mortal from within a community that would always be greater than any individual. From amongst these women new born sons and daughters would in time overcome the wound of this particular death.
My father’s wake, like every wake, was not just about him. A wake is a communal rite that binds the living, the bereaved and the dead together in a set of prescribed rituals aimed at restoring order between the natural and supernatural world.
Dating long before Christianity the wake’s pagan origins are designed to bring closure by laying the dead to rest where they can no longer disturb the living. When the body leaves the house it is common in Mayo, in the rural west of Ireland, to briefly rest the coffin on two household chairs in the front garden, say a few prayers, splash Holy Water against the side of the house and then lift the coffin into the hearse. The chairs are then kicked over.
I have yet to meet a mourner who can explain the purpose of the chair kicking. But if you asked an anthropologist they would tell you that what you are seeing is known as a rite of reversal. The Holy Water and the chair over-turnings are the creation of supernatural barriers to prevent the dead from ever returning to disturb the living within the house. A means of mitigating grief.
For the bereaved the wake can be both exhausting but also therapeutic. Although it can feel clichéd, that repeated handshake grip from the mourners to the principal bereaved family members and ‘Sorry for your trouble’ mantra is both a physical, psychologically and communal declaration to the bereaved that they have lost someone important but also someone who is never coming back. This aspect of the wake is the greatest antidote to what Joan Didion describes as that form of ‘magical thinking’, false belief, that your dead husband/wife is somehow coming back from the grave after the funeral and that death is reversible.
To be truly human is to bear the burden of our own mortality and to strive, in grace, to help others carry theirs: sometimes lightly and sometimes courageously. And if such unselfish compassion, the giving of hours of your own life to ease the passage out of another, is not the best of us, then what is?
Rather than blinding ourselves by denying death’s existence, a wake, the public display of a corpse, and the support of your community, remains the last best hope, and faith of humanity, that together we can overcome the wound, and joy, of being mortal.
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis is published by Da Capo Press