St Johnston - Carrigans     ~ Co Donegal.

Wakes and Funerals Long Ago

Wakes in the past were treated to a surprising degree as a time for merriment and celebration. It was believed that being too mournful only upset the soul of the dead person in the next life.  Drinking, smoking, jokes, storytelling - even dancing and singing and games took place at wakes.  Wakes to this day, follow some of the old practices.  The clock is still stopped at the time of death for the duration of the wake and in Catholic homes, the candles are erected near the corpse and any mirrors covered with white.  The custom of closing blinds before a funeral passes by is still kept but to a lesser extent. 

When a person died the clocks in the house had to be immediately stopped - a custom that continues today. 

The windows and doors had to be opened to let the spirit of the dead person get away.

People were sent out, usually it was a pair, to tell the locality that the person had died.

The corpse was laid out on a bed in white sheets for the wake.  Catholics used candles around the corpse to deter evil spirits. 

Corpses used to be washed and prepared by local women.  The hands were held together by rosary beads and often a white shroud was used.  The body was often put in a coffin on the third day, the day of the funeral. 

There were women employed to do the keening or caoining, which involved loud howling lamentations and singing sad songs over the dead person at the wake.  The practice was frowned upon by the clergy.

The body was put in a shroud for burial on the day of the funeral.  Sometimes coffins were used but only by those who had a bit of money.  Coffins were plain with no handles.  Richer people had handles made of brass and iron on their coffins.

We know that in 1796 a large coffin cost five shillings.  Small coffins cost 2/6.  The Church of Ireland bought coffins for poverty stricken families who had lost a family member in death.

Protestants often had the funeral service in the house for the deceased who was then taken to the graveyard.  Catholics were always taken to the chapel for requiem mass.

Funerals took the longest possible route to the Church.  Sometimes the corpse was carried all the way.  Otherwise a pony and cart was used.

It was considered to be unlucky to wear something new to a funeral.

The Scottish belief that the person most recently buried in a Churchyard was the head spirit of the Church yard was accepted locally.  If you were going to see a ghost in the churchyard, you could expect it to be that person.