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Readers blog: The Irish wake is not morbid. It is understanding and compassion personified

Aoife O’Rourke is uncomfortable around death and belives the tradition of the Irish Wake is morbid.  (Irish Examiner readers blogs – May 2nd 2017) .

Aoife may be surprised to learn that at age 20 I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be invited to wakes either. I also yawned and fidgeted my way through weddings – why all the fuss, money and crowds just to say ‘I do, he does’?

But she makes a classic mistake of projection – of ascribing her motives and feelings to others and thereby describing the tradition of the Wake as ‘morbid’ whereas in fact she is describing her own relationship with death.

She appears not to realise that those holding to the tradition of the Wake do so not out of morbidity but out of a real understanding of human mortality and compassion for their fellow human beings.

It is worth looking at her arguments more closely because they mirror those of young people who since time immemorial have decried ‘tradition and the past’ because they have not yet acquired the life experience or wisdom to grasp that most ‘traditions’ arise organically and precisely because they have been found over long time to be the most effective means to some desired end.

When that desired end is not understood it can indeed appear the absurd or ‘mindless’ activity of older generations.

The refrain ‘no place in the 21st century’ is aired far too often these days in Ireland, as though the past can teach us nothing. It is the conceit of every age to imagine itself ‘better’ than what went before.

Youth who wish to intemperately cast tradition aside will find themselves ‘reinventing the wheel’ - having to deal with the same unavoidable realities but without a time-honoured means of doing so. By the time they come to understand those realities, they may also come to understand some of the reasons for the traditions.

Turning our attention to her main arguments –

That it is ‘a centuries-old abnormal practice’ ... Surely by definition anything practiced over centuries by most of society is the very essence of what’s ‘normal’.

That it ‘is not done in other countries’ ... The fallacious equivalent of ‘all the other kids have them’ and one of the weakest arguments for anything. Mere numerical superiority does not guarantee the inherent virtue of anything, as history shows.

That ‘a dead body can look empty’ ... And so? This is a subjective judgment, where others will see the memory of a loved one, or a former colleague.

That one is ‘obliged’ to pay one’s respects ... No, they’re not. They are free to spend time alone on facebook or tweeting the death to their thousands of virtual friends if they wish. In the same way they are not ‘obliged’ to attend a classmate’s party either, but they surely recognize their absence makes a clear statement which even a ‘like’ on facebook is unlikely to mend. One does not go to a wake or funeral merely to see a corpse but to show solidarity to the deceased’s family as well.

On the contrary there are many commendable aspects to traditional Wakes.

First, on a practical level, it ensured no one got buried alive accidentally. Even in modern medicine misdiagnosis of death occur, and wakes continue to serve this purpose. It seems rather miserly to rush the dead into the ground or crematorium without time for this safeguard.

Second, it allows time for people to say ‘goodbye’ – not only those present, but perhaps others who may have to travel some distance or are delayed by work and would not otherwise get the chance. People unable to make the funeral can still show their sympathies by attending the wake either at home or a funeral home. The wake traditionally encompassed a wider social circle than the funeral itself.

Third, it creates a whole ‘ceremony’ around death – which after all, is still a major life event like birth or marriage – that gives focus to the process of grieving. All the steps from initial phonecalls with the sad news right through to tea and sandwiches after the funeral allows time for grieving and acceptance to take place and keeps one occupied with mundane practicalities

Since Ms.O’Rourke mentions mental health, she should remember good mental health relies on acceptance of events before we can deal with them and move on. Rushing a funeral sweeps it out of sight but not out of mind. It only helps denial and the consequent negative impact this has on mental health.

But there is a deeper issue at stake and her dislike of wakes is only scratching the surface. Ms.O’Rourke tells us ‘we all get scared seeing something so unnatural’.

No, ‘we’ don’t, but this is exactly the reaction we’d expect of someone who has been raised by the wider society in which she lives to think of natural death as ‘unnatural’.

Perhaps Ms.O’Rourke ought keep the old adage in mind ‘there are two certainties in life – death and taxes’.

Far from being ‘morbid’ death is a completely natural part of the life cycle, as natural as being born, falling in love, having children.

I suspect a key issue of Ms.O’Rourke’s beef with death is that she has the misfortune to be raised in an era and culture which has lost its belief in death being a stage to another existence afterwards, and therefore death now represents the end of everything, something to be avoided at all costs, but which almost comically, cannot be avoided at the same time.

It is this that is “not a normal state of affairs”, because most of human history and culture has held the opposite view, rightly or wrongly, that death is a new beginning.

It is not surprising therefore that she finds death something morbid and all reminders of it – such as wakes - to be avoided at all costs.

Perhaps it is precisely the precipitous desire of so many young people to pull the carpet from under their feet by casting aside the scaffold of ‘tradition’; while at the same time increasingly isolating themselves in a virtual world from life’s unavoidable realities, that causes so many ‘mental health’ problems and not, as Ms.O’Rourke argues, the time honoured tradition of facing up to our natural mortality at very real and human Wakes.

Nick Folly


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