Sunday, July 14, 2013

An Irish Wake

Paddy Conway, my husband’s friend, was laid to rest last Thursday. I’m sure all cultures have unique ways of honoring the dead, but the Irish are definitely “serious” when it comes to sending off a loved one on his final journey. First, there is the notice in the local paper announcing the death. Not surprisingly, given their penchant for words, the Irish are a literate population, no skipping The Kerryman or Kerry’s Eye for a morning jog or last minute latte stop.
Then, there is the viewing, open casket, at the funeral parlor. Cremation isn’t really a typical Irish practice. The family is seated in a room with the deceased while friends and family file in, pay their respects and view the body before retreating to another room for conversation, a two hour event.
The following day, mourners attend Mass at the parish church where the priest does his normal thing. There are a few, very short eulogies, no surprises, a homily, communion, the deceased’s favorite music sung and played by his fellow musician friends, (Paddy was a musician) the inevitable and beautiful Ave Maria, Gabriel’s Lament, and Tennessee Waltz. Then, six men hoist the casket to their shoulders and carry it to the waiting hearse.
This is where it changes to something completely different, something infrequently seen anywhere outside small towns and villages featured in National Geographic. To the uplifting, jazzy tunes of Wabash Cannonball, mourners, following the priest, spread out behind the hearse, blocking streets and intersections as they walk behind the slow-moving vehicle ALL the way to the cemetery, no small accomplishment given the heat and humidity of the day and the age of the walkers.
Rath, or Ra as it’s pronounced, is a relatively new cemetery, its inhabitants interred only as far back as the mid-19th century, a mere drop in the bucket for a town that dates back 800 years. And what a cemetery it is. Spread out as far as the eye can see, Celtic crosses, family crypts and small monuments studded with glittering mica stand side by side, back up against each other, the gravel square footage of each gravesite often gaudily adorned with hearts, framed photos, messages, balloons, statues, benches and plaques. My husband’s family is there, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and brothers, as are the families of everyone belonging to the town of Tralee and outlying townlands.
I can’t help thinking about the cemeteries of Southern California or even Arlington and the gated, manicured uniformity of cut grass and small, rectangular stones or crosses marking the resting places of our dead, the tasteful flowers and tiny American flags conjuring up serenity and distance, qualities not considered necessary in this green land thousands of miles from home.
At the gravesite, it’s music again, prayers, the casket is lowered into the ground and then it’s back to the pub. This is where the real send off begins, with sandwiches and alcohol, a few tears, more stories and even more laughter, a fine ending for a kind man. Rest in peace, Paddy Conway.


  1. We have similar Irish Wakes here in Canada, of course for us, it's the big party afterward to toast the deceased on his or her way to heaven and celebrate a life lived. Of course when it is a child it less of the party and more of reflection. God Bless you friend.

  2. Thanks, Kathleen, for sharing. It's a lovely ending and it makes sense that Canadians have similar traditions given that a great many Irish settled there.

  3. I love your colorful description, Jeanette! Oh Tommy, I'm sorry you've lost your friend. Please ask your sweet wife to give you a hug from me.