According to Wikipedia, a wake is:
A ceremony associated with death. Traditionally, a wake takes place in the house of the deceased, with the body present; however, modern wakes are often performed at a funeral home.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes a wake as: A watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances, or a party held after a funeral.
Historically, a wake was the process of laying out the body of a departed (deceased) relative in the family home and watching over them from the time of death until the body is taken into the care of the church. The body is usually laid out in the parlour (living room or bedroom). Family, friends, and neighbours attend. Typically, a large amount of food and drink was consumed over the period of mourning. In Ireland today, wakes are still thought of as part of an Irish funeral, although they have altered slightly and happen more frequently in country towns and villages than in Irish cities. So where did it all come from? The true origins of the wake are foggy but the custom appears to date back to an ancient Jewish custom of leaving the sepulchre (burial chamber, vault, tomb, or grave) of the deceased open for three days before finally closing it up. This time allows family
members to visit, which they typically did in the hope of seeing signs of a return to life.
A myth that might be a basis for the Irish wake suggests that, in medieval times, people who drank from pewter tankards would suffer from lead poisoning, a symptom of which would be a catatonic state causing the person to appear dead only for them to recover or awaken a few hours
or days later!
Whatever the origins, there are specific steps that need to be followed in order to perform a historically accurate Irish wake:
• Family members and neighbours – typically women experienced in laying out the body – gather at the house of the deceased;
• The body is washed and dressed, usually in white;
• A bed is prepared for the body to rest on;
• If the deceased is a man, he is shaved;
• Sheets are hung over the bed and along two or three sides;
• A crucifix is placed at the throat of the deceased and rosary beads are entwined between the fingers;
• Candles are lit around the body;
• The clocks in the house are stopped and curtains closed as a mark of respect for the deceased;
• All mirrors in the house are turned toward the wall or covered.
A wake is most famously remembered for the keening (crying), as the women who prepared the body join the family in mourning. The preparations and the keening carry on until the arrival of any family members who may have been abroad. The deceased is never left unattended for the entire period of the wake. A person, generally a woman or a few women, sit nearby and watch over the body. When a mourner enters the room, they make their way to the side of the body, kneel down and silently recite prayers. Traditionally, the mourners then sympathise with the family before leaving. Visitations
last until midnight and food and drink are served throughout. Men typically congregate outside if it is not too cold or in the kitchen if it is winter, while the women care for the deceased or can be found in the kitchen making tea and sandwiches for visitors. The Rosary is recited at least once around the body and is led by a priest.
A wake can last a number of days, ending when the body is ‘removed’ from the home and brought to the church for a short service, known today as a removal.
There are two funeral services for the deceased, which is still relatively common in Ireland today. One is the removal, which occurs in the evening when the body is ‘removed’ from the home to the church; the second is held before the body is taken from the church to the graveyard or crematorium the next day.